European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday to look for ways to pressure Israelis and Palestinians into launching proxy peace talks, amidst fears that the peace process is in jeopardy.

Israel's decision last week to approve the building of 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem outraged international opinion and sparked concerns as to whether peace talks could still be viable.

"There's a lot to discuss on ... how we can keep the pressure on to get the proximity talks moving ... We think that the settlements should stop, most importantly we believe the talks should begin," the EU's foreign-policy director, Catherine Ashton, said.

Ashton was talking shortly after returning from her first official visit to the Middle East. That visit was largely overshadowed by Israel's decision to expand its settlement-building.

The EU is "very disappointed by the position of the Israeli government, I think I can say very clearly that Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, stressing the EU's position that Jerusalem should function as the capital of both the Israeli and a future Palestinian state.

Asselborn's comment was in reference to a declaration made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day earlier: "Our policy on Jerusalem is the same policy followed by all Israeli governments for the 42 years, and it has not changed," Netanyahu said. "As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is the same as building in Tel Aviv."

Israel's decision to construct further in East Jerusalem came just as US Vice-President Joe Biden arrived in the Middle East to push for indirect peace talks, and was seen in many quarters as deliberately undermining the peace process.

"The Israeli people do not want to be in the position where, every time the international community takes a step forwards, they take a step back and do something to make sure that peace talks can't start again," Asselborn said.

But ministers remained at odds over the question of how to put more pressure on Israel. The EU is the country's largest trading partner, but has so far ruled out any calls for trade sanctions.

Foreign ministers on Monday were also set to hold talks with Tony Blair, the representative of the negotiating quartet of the EU, US, United Nations and Russia.

And the ministers of Germany, Finland, Lithuania and Malta were due to meet individually with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. On Friday, EU diplomats confirmed that a formal meeting between Liberman and EU representatives had been postponed, ostensibly because it had proven impossible to schedule. dpa bn ds