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Europe Quietly Presses For Diplomatic Solutions To Middle East's Problems

FOR the immediate - and emotionally charged - aftermath of the Gulf war, Europe is opting for low-key diplomacy with its Middle East and Mediterranean neighbors. Grand schemes are on the horizon for addressing the top-of-the-agenda Palestinian issue, plus regional security and development. But for now European leaders, acutely aware that the Middle East's problems can't be solved overnight, hope to plant the stakes for a durable peace through stepped-up dialogue.

The European attitude reflects a pragmatism over steps to be taken to achieve peace, coupled with an optimism that conditions are good for finding solutions for the tormented region.

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At a March 4 meeting of European Community (EC) foreign ministers in Brussels, France's Roland Dumas spoke of Europe's choice of a ``quiet diplomacy,'' while Britain's Douglas Hurd spoke of a ``breeze ... felt by everyone'' searching for Middle East peace.

The approach is also the result of satisfaction over initial openness from the United States to addressing all regional issues of importance to the Europeans, such as the Palestinians and Lebanon, as well as a basic conviction that lasting solutions can't be imposed but must come out of the region itself.

The EC decided to send the ``troika'' of foreign ministers from Luxembourg, Italy, and the Netherlands (the current, previous, and subsequent presidencies of the rotating EC Council) for a round of dialogue across the region. The ministers were to meet March 6 in Damascus, Syria, with the ``group of eight'' Arab countries - the six of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Egypt and Syria - before meetings in Jordan and Israel. The diplomatic swing ends in Tripoli, Libya, at a meeting of the five-country Ar ab Maghreb Union.

Taking the diplomatic route doesn't mean Europeans have forgotten their longstanding call for an international conference to address the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nor does it mean they are out of ideas for tackling the region's problems.

On March 3, French President Fran,cois Mitterrand proposed a summit ``for the first time'' of heads of state of the United Nations Security Council to begin an international dialogue on the full range of Middle East problems. He said such a summit could take up the Palestinian issue, Lebanon, the future of Iraq, regional security, distribution of the region's wealth, arms control, human rights, and the environment.

The proposal, contained in a 15-minute speech that didn't once mention Europe, reflects France's desire to see the UN regain the central role it played in the prewar Gulf crisis. As one of the five permanent Security Council members, France sees the international body as the best arena to champion its ideas.

The French point of view helps explain warming ties with Britain, which also fought in the Gulf and is Europe's other permanent Security Council member. The French appreciate Britain's continued support for an international conference on the Palestinian issue.

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``It seems to me that the role played by the UN during this crisis justifies our confidence in it,'' Mr. Mitterrand said. Some analysts have taken that as a hint that France wants to make sure the use of ``international law'' and of the UN to build a coalition against Iraq was not a one-time convenience driven by the US.

But official French sources note a clear satisfaction so far with the American postwar approach. The French are pleased with US statements that it has no ``blueprints'' for a Middle East future, as well as with President Bush's list of issues to be tackled, which includes common concerns, such as Lebanon. The announcement of a Bush-Mitterrand meeting in Martinique on March 14 is further evidence of Franco-American coordination on postwar issues.

Close US coordination with other European partners has been well received elsewhere, too. Since the war's end, US officials have received Mr. Hurd and Mr. Dumas, as well as their Spanish, Italian, and German colleagues.

THOUGH it wasn't involved militarily in the war, Germany is developing several ideas for the region. After the Palestinian issue, which the government believes must be taken up quickly, German leaders emphasize the need to control the proliferation of ``ABC'' (atomic, biological, and chemical) weapons in the region, a point made to US officials last week by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

Germany also stresses the importance of wealth distribution to any plan for regional stability. A source close to the German Foreign Ministry says one government idea is a system based on the EC's ``structural funds'' system, in which contributions from the wealthier members are earmarked for development projects in Europe's poorer regions.

As for the pre-crisis Spanish-Italian proposal for a Mediterranean-wide security and cooperation body, the EC countries remain divided. Both Germany and France see it realistically as a long-term possibility. Providing evidence that he takes the idea seriously, however, Mr. Genscher is said to have noted in talks last week with Mr. Bush that such a regionwide body would not rule out tighter negotiations between Israel and its neighbors, an option Israel prefers.

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