France's Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner and Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos
France's Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner and Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos in Brussels September 10, 2010. Photo by Reuters
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Israel has refused to receive a delegation of five senior European foreign ministers who had asked to come to the country this coming Thursday for talks in both Jerusalem and Ramallah. A senior official in Jerusalem said the official reason Israel declined the request was scheduling problems, but the real reason was a desire to avoid heavy European pressure on Israel to extend the settlement construction freeze beyond the end of this month.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Spanish counterpart, Miguel Moratinos, initiated the proposed visit following a meeting between the two a week ago that dealt almost exclusively with the European Union's efforts to promote the Middle East peace process. Kouchner expressed anger and frustration that the EU was not represented at the recent Middle East summit in Washington despite the fact that EU members have provided most of the aid to the Palestinian Authority since the beginning of the peace process. He even publicly criticized EU foreign affairs and security chief Catherine Ashton for her decision to visit China rather than attend the Washington talks.

Kouchner and Moratinos recruited their counterparts from Britain, Germany and Italy to join a delegation to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an effort to advance the peace process. The delegation would have followed by one day Wednesday's planned visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

A senior official in Jerusalem said Israel had learned that the first subject the EU foreign ministers wished to raise with Israel was an extension of the settlement construction freeze, and as a result, following deliberations at the Foreign Ministry, it was decided to decline the request for the visit to Jerusalem. The official reason for the negative Israeli response was that the visit would be too close to Yom Kippur, which begins Friday evening.

The five EU foreign ministers had initially intended to visit at the beginning of the month at the invitation of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The major focus of the talks was to have been the Gaza Strip, but the visit was deferred due to the Washington summit. The senior Israeli official said now the EU ministers are not interested in discussing Gaza and, in his words, "only want to come to talk about the settlement freeze and the peace process."