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On European Tour, Olmert Buoyed by Apparent Spirit of Understanding

June 15, 2006
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Israel may be far from peace with the Palestinians or Iran, but after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visits to Britain and France this week, the Jewish state feels much closer to Europe. It began with what was not said.

Neither British Prime Minister Tony Blair nor French President Jacques Chirac condemned Israel’s possible unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank. While both urged Olmert to exhaust efforts to negotiate with the Palestinians, there was tacit acknowledgment that it may well be pointless given the radicalism of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

“You can’t have a two-state solution with a group that doesn’t recognize your right to exist,” Blair told reporters after a kosher, catered lunch Monday with Olmert at 10 Downing Street.

“This thing either moves forward by agreement, or other ways have to be found,” he said.

Chirac, who hosted Olmert in Paris on Wednesday, was quoted as telling him that Western demands for Hamas to moderate its stand toward Israel as a precondition for diplomacy were “totally non-negotiable.”

The absence of a veto against Olmert’s vision of removing dozens of West Bank settlements and annexing others behind a new Israeli border was a dramatic departure from long-standing European Union policy of rejecting unilateralism outright. It followed on the heels of President Bush’s praise last month for Olmert’s plan as “bold.”

Emboldened by the reaction, Olmert declared, “The realignment plan is unstoppable.” In Europe, “acknowledgment of this inevitability has been enhanced,” he added.

But he refused to give a deadline for its implementation, saying he would prefer to carry out the withdrawal in the framework of negotiations with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas — a relative moderate — on condition that Abbas first fulfill his obligation under existing peace plans to crack down on Hamas.

Given intensifying fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip between members of Abbas’ Fatah faction and Hamas, Olmert announced in the British Parliament that he had authorized the transfer of Jordanian-supplied weapons to Abbas’ security forces, “to bolster him against Hamas.”

There also was Israeli-European consensus on the need to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

At a banquet for Olmert in France’s National Assembly, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin recounted his country’s role in trying to talk down Tehran.

“We entirely share Israel’s concerns over Iran, given its president’s calls for Israel’s destruction and Holocaust denials,” he said.

The Holocaust connection did not end there. In Paris, Olmert attended the dedication of a memorial to French gentiles who tried to prevent the Nazi deportation and massacre of Jews. That, in turn, prompted reflection on a recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents in France, mainly emanating from disaffected Muslim immigrants motivated by pro-Palestinian sympathies.

The phenomenon prompted Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, to urge French Jews two years ago to flee their country for Israel. That strained Israeli-Franco ties, and Sharon’s efforts at rapprochement — including the creation of an Israel-France Friendship Fund — were cut short by his stroke in January.

In the interim, the French have been busy.

De Villepin described a campaign of prevention, law enforcement and education that he and Chirac ordered which he said has cut anti-Semitic incidents by 50 percent in the past two years — despite the recent religiously motivated murder of Ilan Halimi, a young French Jew, and a rampage by black vigilantes in a Jewish district of Paris.

“We will pursue this struggle, not just in France proper but in Europe and the entire world,” De Villepin pledged.

Olmert was impressed. He called Chirac “one of the greatest fighters against anti-Semitism in the world” and marveled at the “new spirit of understanding” he felt in Europe toward Israel.

But encouraging aliyah remains a Zionist precept incumbent upon every Israeli chief executive. Olmert was quoted as telling Chirac that he still wanted French Jews to immigrate to Israel.

“The problem is, not enough French Jews are doing so,” Olmert quipped.

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