EU urges Israel to end blockade

JERUSALEM -- European Union representatives met with Israeli leaders Sunday in hopes of restarting peace talks with the Palestinians, but the Israelis were cool to the idea of European involvement.

EU officials said they would press Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to drop his insistence on a week without Palestinian violence before implementing an international peace plan.

The EU delegation, headed by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, talked with Israeli peace activists and was to meet Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The visits followed talks Saturday with Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said Sunday that the EU can play only a limited role as mediator in the conflict, because it has persistently shown bias in favor of the Palestinians.

"The European Union has in the past demonstrated a lack of balance in its policy toward Israel, and therefore its ability to play a constructive mediating role is limited," Gissin said.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Arafat appealed to the EU to persuade the Israelis to end a series of measures against the Palestinians, including the economic blockade of their territories, targeted killings of militants suspected of attacks on Israelis and occupation of Palestinian autonomy zones.

Although Verhofstadt stressed that the EU was carrying a "balanced" message to both sides, the European delegation intended to seek those moves from Israel, he said.

Speaking in Ramallah with Arafat Saturday, Verhofstadt said there was an "urgent need" to open up the Palestinian territories.

Palestinian state urged

Israel has argued that its measures are aimed at stopping attacks against its civilians.

The EU mission came as attention focused on the possibility of increased U.S. involvement in Middle East peacemaking.

Verhofstadt said Saturday, "There is now within the international community a general agreement that if we want to find a solution .... we have to create a viable Palestinian state."

The fact that Belgium currently holds the presidency of the EU has caused tension with Israel because a Belgian court is investigating a charge of war crimes against Sharon.

The charge stems from the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by an Israeli-allied Lebanese militia at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut while Sharon was defense minister. The Israeli army was in control of Beirut at the time.