The focus of international attention on the aftermath of the Arab spring should not prevent the resumption Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, European Commission President JosÚ Manuel Barroso said during his first official visit to the region. He reiterated the European Union's commitment to a "democratic and viable Palestinian state".
Following a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah on Sunday, Barroso also expressed "concern" at the growth of Israeli settlements. Last week Oxfam urged Barroso to press Israel
to halt the expansion of its settlements in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, which it said could be the region's "bread basket" if restrictions on Palestinians' use of land and water were lifted.
The European Union is the largest donor to the Palestinians, providing €4bn of aid between 2000 and 2011. "Our commitment is clear," Barroso said. "The truth is that through our overall political and financial support we are laying the foundations of a future democratic and viable Palestinian state – its institutions and its infrastructure."
Barroso announced the EU would provide an additional €20m towards policing and judicial training, as well as supporting transparent elections that conform to international standards. The commission president opened a new Palestinian College for Police Sciences, for which the EU provided 20 per cent of the €15m costs.
He said the resolution of the conflict was a "strategic priority" for the EU. "Lately, international attention has been focused on other countries in the region," Barroso said. "However, the momentous change that we are witnessing throughout the Arab world should constitute an incitement and not a deterrent to the resumption of negotiations. The Middle East peace process cannot become an orphan of the Arab spring."
Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been on hold since late 2010. Since then little progress has been made by negotiating teams from the quartet of the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations. "It is important that the two parties do not act in a way that undermines the viability of a two-state solution," the commission chief said. "In this respect it is with concern that we see the continuous growth of settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem."
Barroso also met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and today held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A statement issued by the commission said that during the meeting with Netanyahu, Barroso "called for an early resumption of negotiations in order to advance the Middle East peace process" and "reiterated the EU's continued commitment for a negotiated two state solution". They also discussed Syria and Iran.