A deep sigh of relief was heard in Jerusalem when it was learned in the summer of 2004 that Chris Patten, the British commissioner, who in Israel was considered a symbol of anti-Israeli tendencies in the EU, would no longer serve in the EU commission.
There were smiles when Israel learned that Patten, who until then had been commissioner for external relations, would be replaced by former Austrian foreign minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
During her term as foreign minister, they said in Jerusalem, she positioned Austria as one of the most pro-Israeli countries in the EU, pressing over and over again for improving the uneasy relations between Europe and Israel.
The minister reaped the fruits when Israel decided, in July 2003, to drop the diplomatic boycott of Vienna and to renew full diplomatic ties with Austria.
It's a historical irony, some commentators say nowadays, that the "architect of normalization of ties between Israel and Austria" owes her high-ranking role in the EU to Joerg Haider, the radical rightist leader in Austria.
In April 2004, she was her conservative People's Party's candidate for the presidency of Austria. Haider's public support for her torpedoed her candidacy, which later led to her appointment to the Brussels job.
Ferrero-Waldner, who arrived here Monday for her first visit as EU commissioner for external relations, regards the EU's dropping of sanctions against her country and renewal of diplomatic ties as personal victories.
But Ferrero-Waldner wants to look forward now. She does not want to discuss "the Haider factor," though his party is still in the Austrian government. She also does not want to discuss the "Arafat factor" or whether Europe was wrong to insist on trying to negotiate with him.
She is looking forward to the contribution the EU can make in the future. She congratulates Israel on the "important gestures" it made toward the Palestinians on the eve of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, and "the leadership" Mahmoud Abbas has shown on the Palestinian side.
She calls on the sides "not to miss the rare momentum" that has formed, demands they meet their commitments in the road map ("in which the disengagement plan is just a first step toward its implementation") and promises Europe will help as much as it can.
Ferrero-Waldner, 55, is a qualified lawyer. In Israel she's referred to as "a fluent diplomat," "an ambitious professional" and a "player with presence." The first woman named to run her country's foreign ministry (2000-2004) reveals some of the ambitions guiding her when she ignores the question about the lip service paid by most Israeli representatives concerning a role for Europe in the Middle East political process: "We are a very important player, since after all, we have the trust of the Palestinians."
You can't make progress without us, she is in effect saying, and adds a significant sentence, according to which she has designated for Europe a role "that is not only economic," meaning Europe will not merely sign the checks.
She is hinting that Europe wants its foot in the political door here. In that context, she is encouraged by the positive signals coming from Washington about American-European cooperation in the region.
President George W. Bush adopted new terminology that includes references to "our partners in the European Union." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is speaking about a "dialogue" and "an end to the era of monologues."
For her part, Ferrero-Waldner responds by minimizing the trans-Atlantic dispute.
Europe wants to put an end to the weapons embargo on China. The U.S. is opposed. Europe wants to involve the International Criminal Court in the matter of Darfur in Sudan. The U.S. is opposed. Europe wants to proceed with a policy toward Iran based on "carrots" and the U.S. wants to focus on "sticks." All this Ferrero-Waldner reduces to one sentence that emphasizes the common denominator: "The U.S. and EU share a lot more agreements than disagreements. Even when our messages are different, ultimately in most cases our goals are identical - in the Iranian case, for example, a country without nuclear weapons."
Her agreement with the U.S. is what makes her effectively rule out the axiom held by many in the EU that "the road to Baghdad (meaning a solution to the conflict in Iraq) leads through Jerusalem (meaning a solution to the Israel-Arab conflict)."
"Simultaneous action must be taken to stabilize the Iraqi arena and to establish peace in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, as if there were no connection between the two," she says.
As for including Hezbollah in the EU list of terror groups, she'll leave that to the European council, meaning the member states. But she does not stamp out reports in Jerusalem about a softening in the EU toward Hamas. "Hamas will certainly take part in the Palestinian parliamentary elections this summer.
So I believe that at some point it will become necessary to discuss the conditions [for removing Hamas from the terror list]. If Hamas turns into a political party that does not take part in violence, it might become possible to consider it, but not right now."
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