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News Analysis: Portugal’s Assumption of E.c. Chair May Mean Better Treatment for Arabs

The Arab-Israeli peace talks under way in Washington coincide with Portugal’s ascension to the rotating chairmanship of the European Community’s Council of Ministers, an office it will hold through June 30.

Not coincidentally, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy flew Sunday to Lisbon for a two-day visit. The Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa, was there last week.

Although temporary in nature, the chairmanship of the 12-member E.C. has endowed the Portuguese foreign minister, Joao de Deus Pinheiro, with power to influence its joint foreign policy, often referred to as European political cooperation.

Portugal, which with Spain joined the E.C. in 1986, has maintained a low profile on Middle East issues.

Although it established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1977, after the Socialists led by Mario Soares came to power, it cannot be counted among the E.C.’s most pro-Israel members.

That reputation belongs to Holland and Denmark, whereas Portugal leans closer to the evenhandedness displayed by Germany and Belgium.

Traditionally, it has maintained good relations with the Arab states and with Israel.

“Neither the Arabs nor the Israelis have ever had problems with Portuguese diplomacy,” Antonio Estaves Martins, who works for the Portuguese news agency Lusa, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency here.

He believes Portugal’s chairmanship of the E.C. at this juncture guarantees the Arabs that they will not receive “second-rank treatment” from the E.C., especially after the six-month chairmanship of Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Brock.

A ‘GOOD FRIEND’ OF ISRAELI ENVOY

But Portugal has never sacrificed its good relations with Israel to pressure from Israel’s foes. Its only concession was to hold off opening an embassy in Israel until last summer. That followed a visit to Jerusalem in May by Pinheiro, the first by a top-ranking Portuguese diplomat.

His trip was part of a Middle East tour that included Syria and Jordan. One of its objectives was to prepare Pinheiro for his upcoming role as E.C. chairman.

He told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he hoped that with the appointment of a Portuguese ambassador to Israel and by working with the Israeli ambassador in Lisbon, “we will find ways to real economic and technological cooperation between our countries.”

According to informed sources, Pinheiro is a “good friend” of the Israeli ambassador, Collette Avital.

More recently, Shamir suggested to the European Parliament that Lisbon would be a good site for the bilateral talks involving Israel, the Arab states and the Palestinians.

Washington was selected instead. But Israel continues to press for a venue closer to the Middle East, and Lisbon could eventually become the site of the peace talks.

According to E.C. sources, Portugal is anxious “to try to do something” in the Middle East.

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