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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Olmert meets Pope ahead of talks with Italian PM in Rome

Last update - 15:37 13/12/2006

Olmert meets Pope ahead of talks with Italian PM in Rome

By The Associated Press

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with the Pope at the Vatican on Wednesday, ahead of talks in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and other senior officials.

It is the second leg of Olmert's European tour after a stop in Germany, the country that takes over the European Union presidency on January 1.

The agenda of the visit is expected to be dominated by the crisis in Lebanon, with Italy being the largest contributor to a United Nations peacekeeping force in the country, the stalled peace process with the Palestinians, as well as how to deal with Iran and Syria.

During the private audience with the Holy See at the Vatican, Olmert was expected to invite the pontiff to visit the Israel.

Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in the 1990s, and the late Pope John Paul II played host to Israeli prime ministers and other officials as part of his effort to build ties with Israel.

A day before the audience, the Vatican issued a statement to remember the Holocaust in connection with a conference of Holocaust deniers taking place in Iran.

"The Shoah [Holocaust] was a great tragedy before which we cannot remain indifferent," the Vatican statement said. "The memory of those horrible events must remain as a warning for people's consciences".

Italy and Israel have cordial relations. Prodi has recently praised a November 27 policy speech by Olmert in which the Israeli premier appealed to the Palestinians to accept the international conditions and re-enter peace negotiations.

However, there are some differing views. Italy believes that Syria and Iran should be involved in any negotiations if the Middle East is to be stabilized. Israel refuses the prospect, as Olmert has reiterated in comments this week.

"I certainly think there are perspectives in Italian policy that don't mesh with ours. But there is a good basis for dialogue," Olmert told Israeli reporters on Tuesday.

Rome is also expected to discuss with Israel the fate of the Shabaa Farms, a disputed plot of land along the border of Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Prodi will raise the prospects of putting the land under a temporary UN administration until the dispute is solved, said a diplomatic source close to
the premier.

Prodi has been active in Middle East diplomatic efforts since he took over at the helm of a center-left government in May. He contributed 2,500 Italian troops to the UN peacekeeping force monitoring the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah militias after the conflict this summer in southern Lebanon.

The Italians are scheduled to take over command of the force from France in February.

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