JERUSALEM – Searching for outside help to revive a stalled Mideast peace plan, Israel urged Europe on Monday to play a wider role in the process and the Palestinian premier headed to Egypt (search) ahead of a crucial meeting with President Bush.
The diplomatic action coincided with a heated debate in the Israeli parliament over settlements in the West Bank (search) and Gaza (search). Israel removed some illegal settler outposts and pulled troops out of some areas, but the Palestinians are pushing for further action as required by the "road map" peace plan.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) told legislators past Israeli governments had removed illegally built settlement outposts, "and this is how we intend to act in the future." But opposition legislator Haim Ramon called last month's removal of about a dozen of the roughly 100 outposts -- followed by the established of a number of new ones -- "one of the biggest farces."
The Palestinian Authority (search) is angry at Israel's inaction on the remaining outposts and at the absence of other concrete steps to ease the suffering of Palestinians.
Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas met on Sunday, but the meeting did little to further the U.S.-backed road map peace plan, which calls for an end to violence and the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005.
Progress has been stymied by disagreement over who should make the next step, despite a temporary cease-fire declared June 29 by militant groups that has greatly reduced the violence of the previous 33 months.
The Palestinians are demanding mass releases of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, further Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian towns and other moves. The Israelis, however, want the Palestinians to begin disarming violent militant groups before meeting such demands.
The militants have warned they will not lay down their arms and will call off the truce unless their colleagues are released by Israel.
In the midst of a stalemate, top officials from both sides are appealing for outside help in a series of discussions culminating with trips to Washington. Abbas meets with Bush on Friday; Bush will hold talks with Sharon on July 29.
In Brussels, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told European Union counterparts Monday he would welcome greater European involvement, warming toward a continent Israel has long viewed as biased in favor of the Palestinians -- an allegation the EU denies.
"I don't accept the formula that has existed for many years, that Israel can live without Europe and Europe can live without Israel," he said. "That's why I'm encouraging the EU all the time to play a key role in the peace process."
Shalom was conciliatory even after EU ministers refused to join Israel and the United States in shunning Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accused by Israel of inciting much of the violence of the past three years and trying to undermine the current peace plan.
"Among friends, we can agree to disagree," Shalom said after meeting his 25 European counterparts.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, who spoke with the ministers in a separate meeting, also called for involvement by the EU, which helped the United States, the United Nations and Russia draft the peace plan.
"Europe is a vital partner in this peace process," Shaath said upon arrival in Brussels. "Without its role, I think it will be very difficult to implement."
Consultations were also intense among Arab nations. Abbas was in Cairo for talks with Mubarak, to be followed by a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, most likely on Wednesday. Egypt and Jordan are seen as key regional mediators because they are the only two of Israel's Arab neighbors with peace treaties with the Jewish state.
Saudi Arabia was also getting involved. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud, delivered a message from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to Mubarak on the peace process. He also told reporters in Cairo he had doubts about American commitment to the road map.
In the debate in the Israeli parliament, some lawmakers defended the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as needed to ensure Israel's security. Others, however, said Israel must honor its commitments to take down the roughly 100 illegal outposts, and argued settlements harmed Israel politically and -- because many are difficult to defend -- militarily.
"You didn't even pretend that you're ready to remove them," said Ramon, representing the Labor Party, the main opposition to Sharon's Likud party. "They [settlers] want to dictate, contrary to all the rules of democracy, how the map of Israel will look."
The settlements are an extremely sensitive issue. Settlers and their supporters say they are exercising Israel's rightful claim on biblical lands. The Palestinians, however, say they amount to a theft of Palestinian land and an attempt to make Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza permanent.