Sharon visit marks end to Franco-Israeli tension

26th July 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, July 26 (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was due in France on Tuesday for a three-day visit billed as the symbolic end to a period of sharp tension between the two countries.

PARIS, July 26 (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was due in France on Tuesday for a three-day visit billed as the symbolic end to a period of sharp tension between the two countries.

Sharon, 77, was expected in Paris at around 7:00 pm (1700 GMT), and his first engagement is a lunch with President Jacques Chirac, 72, on Wednesday. He will also see Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and hold meetings with Jewish leaders before returning home Friday, aides said.

French and Israeli officials described the visit as a turning point, following several years of mutual recriminations over French policy in the Middle East and a surge in attacks on the country's 600,000-strong Jewish minority.

"(The visit) is the natural result of a very tangible improvement in relations over the last months. There's a new openness and trust between our two governments," said Israeli ambassador to Paris Nissim Zvili in an interview on Europe 1 radio.

Sharon's talks with French leaders come just three weeks before Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip -- an initiative hailed by Chirac as "courageous" in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Sharon is creating a positive dynamic," the French leader said.

Aides to Sharon told AFP that Israel "is interested in getting French support" for its policies. Sharon "favours a more active role for France in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as long as it takes a more balanced position," the aides said.

Bilateral relations have long been complicated by accusations that Paris runs a pro-Arab Middle East policy and is insensitive to Israeli security concerns. Chirac's red carpet treatment for the dying Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat late last year was seen by many Israelis as confirmation of French bias.

The low point was hit a year ago when Sharon said the climate of French anti-Semitism was so bad that all Jews there should emigrate "immediately" to Israel. Chirac's office retorted that the Israeli leader would be unwelcome in France until his remarks were clarified.

Since then Israeli politicians have regularly praised France's tough line in combating anti-Semitism, most of which is blamed on members of the country's five-million-strong Arab minority.

On Monday the French interior ministry released figures showing that the number of attacks and insults directed at Jewish targets has fallen dramatically over the last year -- 290 in the six months to June compared with 561 in the same period in 2004.

Three youths were arrested after the latest incident, in which bottles of acid were thrown at a Jewish school in Paris on Saturday.

Officials from both countries noted a convergence of views on other issues in the Middle East, such as the assertion of Lebanese independence following Syria's military withdrawal and concern over Iran's quest for nuclear energy.

But Sharon's talks with Chirac -- as well as with Villepin -- were likely to focus on the Gaza withdrawal, with France pushing for a post-Gaza momentum "so that the Palestinians have a horizon, a light at the end of the tunnel," a French diplomat said.

In an interview with Le Monde newspaper Tuesday, Sharon said that the pullout -- set to start on August 15 -- is a "preliminary stage" ahead of a more comprehensive peace plan based on the so-called 'roadmap' and leading to an eventual Palestinian state.

But he warned that little progress will be possible unless Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas takes tougher action to stop terrorism.

"To enter completely in the (roadmap) plan, there has to be a total halt to terrorism, confiscation of weapons and the dismantling of terrorist organisations. ... I have yet to see serious action on his part against terrorism. He is satisfied with small measures. It is a shame," Sharon said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

0 Comments To This Article