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Monday, December 11, 2006

Olmert trip seeks European support

Olmert trip seeks European support

Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, will seek to bolster
European support for Israel during a trip to Berlin and Rome, amid fears that
the United States may soon shift course in the Middle East.

In Israel, the defence minister has said that any
Palestinian peace initiative must be based on the Saudi plan, which calls for
a two states solution.

In addition to hopes for new peace momentum, Olmert's trip
will address concerns that Europe might soften tough sanctions on the
Palestinians' Hamas-led government and show more tolerance for Iran's nuclear
ambitions, analysts say.

Olmert will meet Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in
Berlin on Tuesday and Romano Prodi, the prime minister of Italy, on Wednesday
in Rome.

'European role'

He is also expected to talk to Italian and German leaders
about a US panel's recommendations for revising America's Middle East policy,
as well as on developments in Lebanon, where Italian and German peacekeepers
are monitoring the truce that ended Israel's month-long war with Hezbollah

It is Olmert's first visit to the two countries since taking
office last May. Following his meeting with Prodi, Olmert is to be received at
the Vatican by Pope Benedict XVI.

Israel is ready to recognise a "European role" in reviving
the peace process, dormant for six years, provided Europe continues to boycott
the Hamas-led Palestinian government, said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for

"Germany, Italy and Europe in general have a role to play to
advance the peace process," Eisin said. "But there cannot be any recognition
of the Hamas government as long as this movement does not recognise Israel and
does not give up its mission to destroy it."

Olmert's spokeswoman said he will ask the European
heavyweights to back economic sanctions against Iran if the Islamic republic
continues its nuclear programme, which Tehran says is for civilian purposes,
but which the West says is a cover for atomic weapons ambitions.

Peace talks

Europe has been seeking a larger role in Middle East
politics, and last month, Spain, France and Italy put forth an independent
initiative meant to get peacemaking back on track. Israel rejected that plan.

The Israeli government "does not like stray peace proposals
that don't involve Israel," Eisin said. "I'm sure that will come up."

Olmert revived the notion of peacemaking after Palestinian
rocket fire and Israel's summer war in Lebanon discredited his major
diplomatic initiative, a large-scale West Bank pullback that was widely
expected to be unilateral.

In one of the first times an Israeli official has publicly
considered the plan, Amir Peretz, Israel's defence minister, said at the
Israel Business Conference that any Palestinian peace initiative must be based
on the 2002 Saudi peace plan. The statement came two weeks after Olmert hinted
at a major policy change.

The Saudi peace initiative calls for an Israeli withdrawal
to the 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state, with
Jerusalem as its capital.

In exchange, Israel would receive peace agreements and full
diplomatic relations with Arab countries.

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