Herb Keinon, THE JERUSALEM POST Dec. 5, 2006
Israel needs a guarantee it will be able to maintain its character as a Jewish
state, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has said in a statement pregnant
with diplomatic significance since it implies acceptance of Israel's rejection
of Palestinian demands for a "right of return" for refugees and their
Prodi made the comments at a private meeting in Rome on Saturday, The
Jerusalem Post has learned.
The statement faintly echoed US President George W. Bush's commitment in his
April 2004 letter to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon prior to disengagement.
Then, Bush wrote that the United States "is strongly committed to Israel's
security and well-being as a Jewish state."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has been leading efforts over the last few months
to get European leaders to make a similar statement. Senior European
diplomatic officials in Israel said they knew of no plans for a public EU-wide
statement of this nature.
Bush was even more explicit in his letter, saying "it seems clear that an
agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian
refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found
through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of
Palestinian refuges there, rather than in Israel."
Prodi's comments were made during a meeting in which the ground rules were
that the content of statements would not be made public, so that the
participants could speak freely.
Addressing ways to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Prodi said there
was a need to provide security assurances to Israel, but that more importantly
there was a need to give Israel a guarantee that it "would be able to maintain
its Jewish character."
The Italian Embassy had no comment on the remarks.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who in his Sde Boker speech last week called on
Palestinians to "relinquish your demand for the realization of the right of
return," is scheduled to meet with Prodi next Wednesday during a three-day
European visit to Berlin and Rome.
Israel has long argued that if Palestinian refugees and their descendants were
allowed to move to Israel, it would tip the demographic balance in favor of
the Arabs and lead to the demise of the Jewish state.
Prodi's comments came at a meeting during which he also raised the idea of
expanding the European role at the Rafah border crossing to include the entire
Philadelphi Corridor if both Israel and the Palestinians agreed. He also said
that now was not necessarily the time for large-scale Middle East peace
conferences, as some have recommended recently in Europe, but rather for
confidence building measures by both sides.
Senior diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said Prodi's comments about the need
to provide guarantees that Israel would remain a Jewish state were "very
significant," because if European leaders talk about the right of Israel to
exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, "they are by definition rejecting
the idea of a Palestinian right of return."
"It is important to get everyone on the same page on this," one official said.
"If this point were agreed upon by the international community, then it could
be possible to begin dealing with finding permanent solutions for the refugees
without waiting for a final status agreement."
A public European declaration along these lines would represent a significant
shift in European policy, the official added.
Another official, however, said it was very unlikely that Prodi, or any other
European leader, would repeat his comments in public or come out with a
declaration similar to Bush's, because of the waves it would cause in the Arab
Such a statement, he said, would bring the European community down squarely on
Israel's side on an issue that has proven to be a major stumbling block in the
diplomatic process, something the Europeans were unlikely to do at this time.
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