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France sees off Katzav, waits on Sharon visit

PARIS, Feb 20 (AFP) – Israeli President Moshe Katzav left France early Friday after a four-day state visit aimed at paving the way for a follow-up trip in April by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The stay by Katzav, who holds a largely ceremonial post, was long on diplomatic gestures as France and Israel tried to patch up a relationship strained by Israeli claims of French anti-Semitism and pro-Arab bias in the Middle East conflict.

“I will never forget my visit to France,” he said in French before a large gathering in a Paris synagogue late Thursday.

During the trip, the first by an Israeli head-of-state since 1988, Katzav said he was met “everywhere with friendship, with warmth, with sympathy for the problems of the state of Israel.”

But, while the blue-and-white Israeli flag fluttered on the Champs-Elysees in Katzav’s honour and mutual flattery was extended, few solutions were found on the points dividing the Jewish state and Paris.

Foremost among those was Israel’s construction of the barrier in the West Bank cutting off the Palestinian population.

Katzav and his host, President Jacques Chirac, toned down the rhetoric, but their conflicting points of view were still evident.

“As long as terrorism lasts, we have no other choice but to build the security barrier, to take unilateral measures and to conduct military actions to protect our citizens’ lives,” Katzav said a state banquet Monday marking the start of his stay.

Chirac, who has led international criticism of the barrier and who has previously called it illegal, said he recognised that Israel was concerned about its safety, but “the Palestinians also have the right to peace, to dignity, to a future, to a state”.

The exchange was especially pointed, coming as it did before a hearing by the International Court Justice in The Hague next week on the legality of the barrier, which Palestinians say is a land-grab and a mechanism of apartheid.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Wednesday took the rare decision to publicly state its position, saying the barrier was contrary to international humanitarian law.

Israel has said it will boycott the court hearing.

The other point of contention between Israel and France – Israel’s claims that France is experiencing rising and widespread anti-Semitism – was defused slightly when Katzav acknowledged that French officials were doing much to crack down on any form of anti-Jewish racism.

Chirac and a variety of other officials, including Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, assured Katzav they would not tolerate anti-Semitic incidents.

After a brief visit to Toulouse Thursday to tour the headquarters of aircraft maker Airbus, and the Paris synagogue visit, Katzav left the French capital early Friday on an El Al flight headed for Israel.

Israel’s ambassador to Paris, Nissim Zvili, said the president’s trip was a prelude to a visit by Sharon in April.


                                                              Subject: France news