Sharon holds talks with French FM in Paris

PARIS (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with France’s foreign minister Thursday for talks on Israel’s upcoming withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as the two countries tried to forget years of diplomatic tension and enter a new, friendlier period of relations.
The morning talks between Sharon and Philippe Douste-Blazy focused “on the situation in the Palestinian territories” ahead of Israel’s planned pullout from Gaza and four small West Bank settlements in coming weeks, the foreign minister’s office said.

They also discussed the role of the European Union in the Mideast peace process, ministry spokeswoman Marie Masdupuy said in a brief statement. Sharon was to meet privately with members of France’s Jewish community later in the day.

The four-day visit was Sharon’s first since he briefly stopped in Paris after becoming prime minister in 2001. He leaves Friday.

Sharon stirred fury here a year ago by encouraging French Jews to emigrate because of anti-Semitism in France. But he has recently won praise from French President Jacques Chirac for leading Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The two leaders met Wednesday, the first step in a fence-mending trip to France after years of recurring strained ties between the two countries. Chirac’s spokesman described their two hours together as a “warm discussion.” “We are witnessing a relaunching — a renewal — of the peace process, in the framework of the roadmap,” Chirac said before the talks, referring to the stalled peace plan laid out two years ago by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

The Israeli leader went out of his way to thank Chirac, calling him “one of the great leaders of this world.” He said Chirac’s invitation to visit Paris offered “precious assistance in the peace process that we all need in the Middle East.” “I left Israel at a time that is not simple, at a time when Palestinian terrorism continues, and when the internal struggles in Israel are bitter in regard to the question of the pullout,” Sharon said, stressing how important the France trip was.

Chirac, seen by many Israelis as unfairly pro-Arab, hasn’t travelled 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.

Sharon said this week he invited Chirac to visit his ranch and that the French leader agreed. Still, French officials appeared cautious not to overplay the visit.

When asked to describe the state of bilateral ties on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Douste-Blazy sidestepped the question, saying simply that France supported Sharon in the Gaza withdrawal plan.

Then he called for “very deep reflection” about Israel’s security barrier along the West Bank, saying that it must respect all Palestinians.

A year ago, Sharon angered Paris when he told Jewish-American leaders that France was home to “the wildest anti-Semitism” and urged French Jews to emigrate to Israel.

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