Mission to Middle East first big challenge for Czech EU presidency

Bernard Kouchner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Karel Schwarzenberg, Carl Bildt (left to right), photo: CTK

In the first major challenge of the Czech Republic’s presidency of the European Union, the country’s foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, is currently heading an EU mission to the Middle East. The high-level delegation is seeking to facilitate a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, and to make sure civilians in the Gaza Strip have access to humanitarian aid.

Bernard Kouchner,  Benita Ferrero-Waldner,  Karel Schwarzenberg,  Carl Bildt  (left to right),  photo: CTK
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, together with the EU Foreign Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and the Foreign Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt, set out for Cairo on Sunday, the first leg of the EU mission’s Middle-Eastern tour. Its objective is to security the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, and help mediate a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. Before boarding the plane at Prague’s Ruzyně airport, Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner told reporters that the situation in Gaza needs an urgent solution.

“We are all terribly concerned about the situation in Gaza and particularly about the humanitarian situation. It’s therefore absolutely necessary that the violence stops. That means of course both sides – rocketing from Gaza to Israel on one hand, but also the Israeli ground incursion and the Israeli bombings. The most important thing for us at this very moment, and here the European Commission has a lot to do, is to allow access for humanitarian aid.”

Photo: CTK
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that it was rockets fired by Hamas into Israel which provoked what he called a “disproportionate” reaction by the Israeli Defence Forces. But the only thing that matters now is bringing both sides to the negotiating table, he said.

“The most important fact, the most important job is to get the cease-fire. That’s all. Because I don’t know any war with an end. And we are working on the end, to bring the conflict back to the political level return to politics, to the peace process; the Anapolis process or another process but coming back to the political process. This is the only way.”

On Monday, the EU officials moved on to Tel Aviv for talks with the Israelis, and to the West Bank, where they are meeting representatives of the Palestinian Authority. In Ramallah, Mr Schwarzenberg is also set to meet the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also holding negotiations in the region.

“I think that the visit of President Sarkozy is very important – he is the president of one of the greatest European countries. And even as the French president, he always acts as a member of the EU. So I think that his visit to the Middle East will bring more synergy and cooperation, and we will therefore meet in Ramallah on Monday.”

The delegations might see some results, as leaders of Hamas said on Monday that they were ready for peace negotiations. Meanwhile, the Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolánek, announced on Monday that the Czech EU presidency had produced a peace plan for the Middle East. He said he would discuss it with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President George W. Bush before releasing the details.