Olmert eyes Europe support on Hamas, Iran

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (Reuters) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to seek a strong European stand against the Hamas-led Palestinian government and Iran’s nuclear programme as he begins his first visit to Britain and France on Sunday.

In talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, Olmert will also lobby for his West Bank redeployment plan, which has won US praise but faces political hurdles at home and the misgivings of moderate Arabs.

As top European Union powers, Britain and France have played supporting roles in navigating a beleaguered “roadmap” to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Along with Germany, they have also led Western bids to curb Iran’s atomic ambitions through talks.

Yet many Israelis see the Europeans as less reliable Middle East powerbrokers than their US ally, a view bolstered by reports of anti-Semitism among Europe’s growing Muslim minority.

“It [the European Union] is the weak link, but Olmert has the advantage of coming with a plan under which he is willing to give up territory,” an Israeli official said, referring to a proposal to remove dozens of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank while annexing others in the absence of peace talks.

Olmert argues that his “realignment plan” is warranted since Hamas Islamists sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction defeated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ more moderate Fateh faction in January elections. Hamas has so far resisted calls to change.

Yet the Europeans share Arab fears that the “realignment” could deprive Palestinians of a viable state alongside Israel.

And though it closed ranks with Washington in imposing an aid embargo on the Hamas government, the European Union wants an alternative payment mechanism for Palestinian civil servants.

“Ours is not a love-love relationship,” a British diplomat said when asked about Israel, adding that there would be “hard talking” with Olmert about his proposed unilateral policies.

Gaza violence, Iran fears

Olmert was a champion of last year’s Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But fighting with Palestinians from the coastal territory has continued unabated, undermining Israeli  support for a sweeping redeployment in the strategic West Bank. Escalation looms after Hamas announced over the weekend it was abandoning a 16-month-old truce in response to the killing of seven Palestinian beachgoers during Israeli shelling on Gaza.

“Realignment” went conspicuously unmentioned in speeches made by Olmert during visits earlier this month to Israel’s two Arab peace partners, Egypt and Jordan. Instead, he spoke of negotiating with Abbas in hope of softening Hamas’ stance. Olmert has also stressed the need to reign in arch-foe Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West suspects is aimed at producing a bomb despite Tehran’s insistence it is for energy.

Israel, assumed to have the region’s only nuclear arsenal, considers Iran a threat to its existence. Olmert has endorsed Western efforts to negotiate a compromise with Tehran but refuses to rule out Israeli military action as a last resort.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel’s elimination and Holocaust denials have had special resonance in Europe, site of the Nazi genocide against Jews in World War II.

While his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, strained Franco-Israeli ties by calling on French Jews to flee “wildest anti-Semitism” in their country, Olmert is expected to cultivate rapprochement.

The Israeli official said that France, confronted with urban disturbances by predominantly Muslim immigrant youth, no longer saw anti-Semitism as primarily a response to Israeli policy.

“Europe finally understands that you can’t get rid of a problem by blaming it on Israel,” the official said. 

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