Thu, Jun 15, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Olmert out to woo France

MAKING FRIENDS Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told British Jewish leaders that he hopes to get Chirac behind his plan to pull out of much of the West Bank


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was to meet French President Jacques Chirac yesterday on the latest leg of a tour of world capitals to drum up support for an ambitious, contentious plan to unilaterally redraw Israel's borders with the Palestinians.

Olmert, sworn in as premier last month, said on Monday that he would try to get Chirac behind his plan to pull out of much of the West Bank, without an agreement with the Palestinians if necessary.

Israeli and French officials say they expect Wednesday's Paris talks to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, border clashes between the Israelis and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Other issues to be discussed are likely to include Iran's nuclear program -- which the EU has been intensively involved in trying to end -- and Tehran's support for Palestinian militants and Hezbollah, the officials said.

Central to the talks will also be bilateral relations, which have been through a frosty period.

Many Israelis view France as biased in favor of the Palestinians, and reports of rising anti-Semitism toward the 600,000-strong French Jewish community have only fanned the flames.

Chirac, seen by many Israelis as unfairly pro-Arab, has not traveled to Israel since 1996, when he angrily shouted at Israeli police and accused them of limiting his movements during a tour of Jerusalem's holy sites.

In 2004, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon outraged Paris when he said France was home to "the wildest anti-Semitism" and urged French Jews to emigrate to Israel for their own safety. But only a year later, Sharon charmed the French during a visit to Paris, launching a distinct warmup in relations between the countries.

At his meeting with the British Jewish leaders Monday, Olmert said he want to keep that momentum going.

"A change in the environment of personal relations started with him and Prime Minister Sharon," Olmert said. "I want to continue it."

Olmert's visits to Paris and London come hard on the heels of trips to the US, Egypt and Jordan.

When he took his plan to Washington last month it was widely expected to get a cool reception, but instead US President George W. Bush praised Olmert's "bold thinking."

In an interview before Olmert left Israel, France's ambassador there, Gerard Araud, said that Chirac's response to the new prime minister's withdrawal idea would also be hard to predict.

"The Israelis really didn't know what would be the response of President Bush," he said. "Olmert will explain the rationale of what he wants to do ... it will be for Prime Minister Olmert to explain and convince."

During his two-day visit, Olmert will also meet Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, other French officials and representatives of the Jewish community.

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