World

EU promises 'unprecedented' aid for Mideast peace

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union foreign ministers on Monday pledged "unprecedented" political, financial and security support for Israel and the Palestinians if they reach a peace agreement.

In the event of a final peace deal, EU ministers said, the 28-member trade bloc will offer Israel and a future state of Palestine a "special privileged partnership." That will mean increased access to European markets, facilitation of trade and investment, closer cultural and scientific ties and promotion of business-to-business relations. Greater political dialogue and cooperation in the security realm are also foreseen, the ministers said.

At their meeting in Brussels, the ministers proclaimed the EU's readiness to "contribute substantially" to bring about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ministers didn't cite figures and people who attended the meeting said numbers weren't discussed.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the terms of Palestinian statehood, but gaps remain wide and there have been no apparent signs of a breakthrough.

The two sides have reached a midway point in the talks, and Kerry has said he hopes to at least reach a framework that would outline the main principles of a deal by the May target date. Earlier this month, he presented the first U.S. bridging proposal, a plan for security arrangements between Israel and a future Palestinian state. Neither side has rejected the plan, but the Palestinians have expressed serious misgivings.

Monday's promise of EU aid is meant to encourage the negotiators to keep at it. "We are reaching some kind of crossroads. We want the talks to continue, and this is why we are sending this message of encouragement," John Gatt-Rutter, the EU representative to the Palestinian territories, told The Associated Press.

"We would like to issue a positive call to the parties," Gatt-Rutter said. "Look, the road is difficult, it is not going to be easy. In case you manage to put aside the differences, we are ready to work."

The EU ministers said they will work on concrete proposals to help contribute to the sustainability of a peace agreement, including in the areas of Palestinian state-building, regional issues, refugees, security and Jerusalem.

Monday's promises come after displays of growing EU displeasure over Israel's settlement building on occupied lands the Palestinians want for their state. Recent EU steps includes guidelines for agreements with Israel that take effect in January and are meant to ensure EU funds don't reach Israeli projects in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and other territories captured by Israel in 1967.

Israel balked at the "territorial clause" but its refusal to accept the guidelines would have meant the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in joint research programs. A compromise was found on the research programs, but the dispute unnerved the Israel government.

Senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's outgoing national security adviser, have warned that Israel could face further international isolation if negotiations with the Palestinians fail.

The EU hasn't spelled out what actions it might take then.

Associated Press writer Karin Laub contributed to this report from the West Bank.

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