Barnier to meet Arafat

28th June 2004, Comments 0 comments

JERUSALEM, June 27 (AFP) - French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier will risk the ire of Israel this week by going ahead with a controversial visit to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at his besieged West Bank headquarters.

JERUSALEM, June 27 (AFP) - French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier will risk the ire of Israel this week by going ahead with a controversial visit to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at his besieged West Bank headquarters.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, having declared Arafat an absolute obstacle to peace, has been trying to persuade European Union governments to follow the United States' lead and cut off all contacts with his long-time enemy.

While his Italian and German counterparts Franco Frattini and Joschka Fischer both chose not to meet Arafat on recent trips to the region, Barnier has decided to pay a visit to the West Bank town of Ramallah on Tuesday.

"It is extremely regrettable that the French government persists in seeing Arafat as a partner when there is a universal consensus that he is an obstacle to peace," Sharon's foreign policy advisor Zalman Shoval told AFP.

The Israeli security cabinet authorised Arafat's "removal" from Ramallah in the aftermath of two suicide bombings last September and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert even suggested that Arafat's assassination was an option.

Sharon himself made clear last week that he has no intention of reversing his hardline policy towards Arafat, declaring that he would remain holed up in his headquarters known as the Muqataa for "the next 45 years."

The 75-year-old has been confined to the Muqataa by Israeli troops since December 2001.

Another source close to Sharon added that Barnier's visit was a "serious mistake".

"This kind of meeting will not bring Arafat back to life as he is totally discredited," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"It also does not help France advance the interests of the Palestinians as it's clear to everyone that Arafat is an obstacle to peace."

Shoval sought to play down the prospects of long-term damage to Franco-Israeli relations by saying the two countries' differences "were already well known."

However, by choosing to go ahead with the visit to the Muqataa, Barnier has effectively blown any chance of meeting with Israeli leaders.

Any foreign diplomat who visits Arafat is automatically denied any opportunity to meet Israeli officials on the same trip.

French diplomatic sources argued that Paris's retention of contacts enables it to exert pressure on Arafat to carry out widely demanded security reforms, in contrast to other countries who have given him the cold shoulder.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, said it "greatly appreciated" the prospect of a visit by the chief French diplomat.

"We hope that such a meeting will allow us to turn different initiatives into reality and we are certain that France can do this," Palestinian negotiations minister Saeb Erakat told AFP.

Barnier's visit to Ramallah comes after he held talks with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders in Cairo and Amman last week about Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

He gave his strong support for Egyptian efforts to ensure security in Gaza after the pullout scheduled for the end of next year and said that France was prepared to take part in "an international presence" in the territory.

Although no date has been set, the foreign ministry in Paris has said that Barnier hopes to visit Israel after the summer break.

© AFP

Subject: French news

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