President of EU Council of Ministers: The Arafat Excuse Has Disappeared

"With Arafat gone, the problem of the peace process' dead end disappears," Luxembourg foreign minister and current president of the European Union Council of Ministers, Jean Asselborn, told Haaretz last night.

"The `Arafat excuse' no longer exists. This matter has been resolved with the democratic election of Mahmoud Abbas," he said.

Asselborn, on his first overseas trip since assuming his post as council president this month, will arrive in Israel today and is scheduled to visit the territories. The presidency rotates every six months.

Asselborn is convinced that developments on the Palestinian side and the creation of the new coalition in Israel provide a window of opportunity - on a global scale, in his opinion - that should not be missed.

Asselborn's visit is meant to clarify to his Israeli and Palestinian interlocuters that promotion of the peace process is high on the agenda of the current president of the European Union Council of Ministers, and that he will strive to keep the window of opportunity open.

As someone who has spent long hours assisting the tsunami victims, Asselborn said: "It is enough that terrible natural disasters befall us. We must not add man-made tragedies to them."

Asselborn attributes unusual significance to the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He views it as the key to regional stability, to the rapprochement of the Arab world and the Western world, to healing trans-Atlantic wounds and even to world peace.

Like his French colleague, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, Asselborn believes that the establishment of an Israeli-Palestinian peace should take precedence over the stability of Iraq. Despite America's opposite stance on this issue, Asselborn believes that during his country's presidency of the council, trans-Atlantic relations will finally thaw.

Asselborn said that during talks he conducted recently in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and with Condoleezza Rice, who is set to replace Powell in the incoming U.S. Cabinet, he received the impression that this was an American interest too.

The council president believes that European and American cooperation in the Middle East will be to the benefit of all sides to the conflict.

Asselborn also hopes that such cooperation will discredit "the mistaken view that has taken root here, which says that Americans support Israel, and Europe supports the Palestinians."

Asselborn is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Vice Premier Shimon Peres.

On Thursday Asselborn will lecture at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya at a day-long conference on Israel's relations with the European Union.