In a two-day meeting opening, European Union foreign ministers and their counterparts from Arab countries and Israel debated political and economic cooperation between Europe and the Middle East.

Observer described this semi-annual Euro-Mediterranean ministerial meeting as one of the most optimistic sessions because of this prospect of cooperation.

Apparently, the EU wants to utilize a truce declared on Feb. 8 between the Palestinians and the Israelis to push its ambitious plan to boost education, trade, economic integration, and human rights programs in the region as part of its Euro-Med free trade plan to be implemented by 2010.

"With only five years to go, action is needed to make a reality of that ambition," the European Commission said in a report to EU nations last month.

The EU has pumped around $16.3 billion USD, in development aid, grants and loans in its Euro-Mediterranean partnership to support the Middle East Process, since 1995, Israeli sources said.

Under the Feb. 8 truce, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas agreed to end to violence, handover of five West Bank towns to Palestinian control and release 900 prisoners.

Two cities have been handed over, and only 500 prisoners have been released. On Sunday, Israeli cabinet approved the release of 400 Palestinian. The prisoners are expected to be released next week.

The EU partners are Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Mauritania, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey.

Despite lack of fulfillment of obligations by Israel, the peace process appears to have some momentum lately, especially after the Palestinian Factions declared calm until the end of the year.

EU executive Commission has begun pursuing new avenues of assistance, focusing on issues such as human rights protection, the empowerment of women, boosting democracy, migration, independent judiciary and environmental protection, in addition to anti-terrorism programs.