Israeli officials are criticizing the European Union’s decision this week to lift its eight-year arms embargo against Syria.
“What should have been lifted is (Syria’s) embargo on negotiations, not the embargo on arms,” Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters here, referring to Israel’s stalled peace negotiations with Syria.
Peres was here this week meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. The two leaders were urging European and other donor nations to move ahead with long-promised financial aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.
The E.U. decision to lift the arms embargo was reached at a meeting here of the group’s 12 foreign ministers, who voted unanimously in favor of the move.
The embargo had been imposed in 1986 amid allegations that Syria was involved in international terrorism.
In Washington, the E.U. decision also drew strong protest from nine members of Congress, who fired off a letter to President Clinton urging he “express strong United States opposition to this action” and take all possible measures to “convince European states to reverse this mistaken decision.”
“Until Damascus demonstrates its commitment to peace and stability by signing a peace treaty and ending its support for international terrorism, nations should not sell weaponry to Syria,” the members of Congress wrote.
The members of Congress also sent a letter to E.U. President Jacques Delors, urging the union to reverse its decision.
Led by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), legislators signing on to the letters were Reps. James Saxton (R-N.J.), Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Peter King (R-N.Y.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).
In sharp contrast, a State Department official said the United States did not voice opposition to the E.U. decision.
“The E.U. knows that the United States continues to list Syria on the list of nations that sponsor terrorism and narcotics trafficking,” a State Department official said. “This was a completely independent decision.”
The state Department’s terrorism, and narcotics list ban Syria from trading privileges.
The E.U. decided to lift the arms embargo as a good will gesture aimed at getting Syria to move forward in its peace negotiations with Israel, observers here said.
The lifting of the arms embargo is the latest in a series of gestures by the Europeans toward Syria. Citing improvements in its human rights record and its participation in the Middle East peace process, the E.U. earlier this year unblocked some $370 million in aid to Syria.
And Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa met with his E.U. counterparts on Monday – marking the first direct E.U.-Syrian talks since 1977 – to discuss further steps toward improved relations.
In a related development, Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan met with E.U. officials last Friday in an effort to establish a new accord that would lead to the opening of their respective markets and the establishment of an ongoing political dialogue.
Meanwhile, Israel is currently negotiating a new accord with the E.U. aimed at expanding their political, economic and scientific cooperation. The negotiations are expected to be completed by the end of the year.