JERUSALEM, JULY 23 -- Three European Community foreign ministers here to encourage Israel's new right-wing government to renew the Middle East peace process said today that the opening of Israeli-Palestinian talks is an essential step in that direction.
The overnight visit here by the foreign ministers of Italy, Ireland and Luxembourg, representing the EC, is the first major diplomatic contact for the six-week-old government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his new foreign minister, David Levy.
At a news conference tonight, Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis said the Europeans had told Levy they were "concerned that there has been a delay in the peace process," which broke down in February when Israel refused to accept a U.S. plan for Israeli-Palestinian talks. He added: "The peace process is impossible without the Palestinians and without a real representative of the Palestinians."
The Europeans' visit was coordinated with Secretary of State James A. Baker III and was seen by Israel as a prelude to a planned meeting in Washington next month between Baker and Levy. There, Levy is expected to detail the position of the new government on Israeli-Palestinian talks, which continue to be seen by the Bush administration as the essential first step in any new regional peace initiative.
The three ministers are scheduled to meet Tuesday with Shamir before going to Tunis for talks with representatives of the Arab League and Palestine Liberation Organization. However, officials here said they did not expect the EC ministers to play a significant role in the current diplomatic maneuvering.
"They want to have Europe involved in the peace process," one senior Israeli government source said. "But this is not new, and we are not especially interested in having Europe involved."
Israel's relations with the EC have deteriorated in the last year because of differences over the peace process and Israel's handling of the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Earlier this year, the EC cut back on scientific cooperation with Israel to protest Israeli action in the occupied territories and stepped up aid to Palestinians there.
Although the EC continues to advocate an international peace conference to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, De Michelis said European governments also support the U.S. plan for talks. He said the ministers accepted Levy's assurance that the new government is serious about the peace process but "are waiting for the implementation of the specific proposal."
Levy expressed satisfaction with the talks, saying the three ministers had assured him that "Europe does not intend to exert pressure to weaken Israel" and that "differences of opinion should not bring about a destruction of relations between Israel and the European Community."