A Mighty Midget

Europe is prepared to invest sweat, tears and a whole lot of money as well to realize its objective. Its duty president will enlist all its means of persuasion. But in no uncertain terms will it be prepared to forgo the supreme objective - the implementation of the road map.

Four hundred and fifty-one thousand six hundred - that's the number of people residing in Luxembourg, with just 277,400 able to boast Luxembourgian citizenship. Two thousand five hundred and eighty-six square kilometers - that's the area over which lies the country ranked 166th in the world in terms of size.

Despite its scant dimensions, the duchy that lies between Germany, Belgium and France does not harbor any inferiority complexes. For the past two weeks, it has represented close to half a billion Europeans, and managed the policies of the 25 European Union member-states. "It's as if the United States was represented around the world by the mayor of Fresno, California," joked the Economist weekly, which addressed the issue.

But this doesn't move the people of Luxembourg, one of the six founders of the European Community, and a country in which income per capita is among the highest in the world. The current holder of the EU presidency has an ambitious agenda, which doesn't lack the Middle East. To the contrary, the Middle East appears very high on the list.

For his first trip abroad, Jean Asselborn, the rotating president of the EU's Council of Ministers and Luxembourg's deputy prime minister and foreign minister, chose Israel and the territories. "Not coincidentally," he clarified in a talk held on the eve of his visit, which begins today.

Asselborn had planned to come here just three days after taking office, but decided in the end to allow Abu Mazen to settle down and get comfortable in his new seat. The purpose of the visit: to emphasize the huge significance the EU presidency attributes to the renewal of the peace process. His premise is that a resolution of the Middle East conflict is the key to everything - the key to making peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the key to stability in the region, the key to an understanding between the Arab-Muslim and Western-Christian worlds, the key to mending the trans-Atlantic rifts, and even the key to world peace, no less.

Asselborn sees "a rare window of opportunity that can't be missed" in the region, firstly in light of the developments in the Palestinian Authority and the election of Abu Mazen as PA chairman. On the one hand, Asselborn sees Abu Mazen as an authentic, grassroots leader, who is Fatah to the very core; on the other hand, he views him as a serious interlocutor, a realist, "who is committed - despite the disgraceful attack at the Karni crossing - to the fight against terror."

Secondly, the current holder of the EU presidency, known in Europe as "the champion of consensus and compromise," can boast the fact that the EU, which was torn apart from the inside during the war in Iraq, is now united from wall-to-wall around the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And thirdly, because of the warming Asselborn foresees in the relations between the EU and the United States.

Luxembourg's foreign minister met recently in Washington with his U.S. counterpart, Colin Powell, and secretary of state-designate, Condoleezza Rice. He gathered from them that the new U.S. administration intends to change its tepid approach to the peace process. He also learned that the administration wishes to cooperate with Europe on the matter.

Bush's first destination following his swearing-in will be Brussels. He will also be the first American president to visit the EU institutions.

Asselborn intends to take advantage of these positive signs to step through the window of opportunity and leave it open. The dead-end created by the leadership of Yasser Arafat - Asselborn is even willing to admit this somewhat - has been replaced by tremendous hope.

"As rotating president, we are shouldering great responsibility to forward the process," he says. "The Israelis must understand that the `Arafat excuse' is over. We are facing a new era. An opportunity like this won't come knocking again."

Europe is prepared to invest sweat, tears and a whole lot of money as well to realize its objective. Its duty president will enlist all its means of persuasion. It will pay compliments, on the one hand, and express - as Asselborn does - its appreciation for "the courage, vision and determination of the government of Israel [to implement the disengagement plan]."

But in no uncertain terms will it be prepared to forgo, even for tactical reasons, the supreme objective - the continuation of the process and implementation of the road map.

From Abu Mazen, it will demand a fight against terror, a continuation of the reforms and a strengthening of the PA's democratic institutions. From Israel, it will demand that it meet "the five parameters" it defined for the success of the pullout - that the withdrawal from Gaza be a full withdrawal, that it be part of the negotiations with the Palestinians, that it be a stage on the way to realizing the vision of two states, that it not be accompanied by the relocation of settlements to the West Bank, and that Israel assist with the building of Gaza's economy.

In this context, Asselborn stressed the importance of having all the members of the Quartet involved in the process, as well as the need to create a corridor between the evacuated Gaza and the West Bank. This, in essence, is the European response to Dov Weisglass's "formaldehyde declaration."

Assessments in Israel on the eve of Asselborn's visit were that the Luxembourgian midget has no pretensions of grandeur, that he will seek to keep a low profile and go home safely. If the assertiveness demonstrated here by the president of the EU's Council of Ministers is evidence of anything, Jerusalem may have to reassess things.