- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

TEL AVIV — Israeli officials say Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s meetings this week with British and Norwegian leaders are just the latest signs of a thaw in Israeli-European relations that had been cooled by the Palestinian uprising.

The warming stems in part from the toppling of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the introduction last month of the “road map” peace plan authored by the Quartet of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

Despite their role in the Quartet, EU delegates were left out of President Bush’s June meeting with regional leaders in Aqaba, Jordan, sending a strong message to the Europeans that they had to mend fences with Israel if they wanted to play a role in implementing the peace plan.

“There is a sense that the road map is in a crucial phase and the EU wants to do what it can to help both sides. The better the relationship with Israel is, the more the EU and Israel can cooperate,” said a political officer at the British Embassy in Israel. “The EU realizes that its stock in Israel is very low and it wants to set about addressing that.”

Israel realizes it can’t afford to let relations stall with its second-largest trading partner. It also sees a window of opportunity during the six-month EU presidency of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has refused to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“What you see is Israel engaging. At the end of day we have mutual values,” said Ron Prosor, an aide to Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. “At least we can begin to try to persuade. Will it be easy? No. Can we do better? Yes.”

Mr. Sharon met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London on Monday to discuss the road map, designed to end 33 months of violence and create a Palestinian state by 2005. Yesterday, he met Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik in the west Norwegian port of Molde.

“The foundation is being laid for a new relationship with [Europeans],” Mr. Sharon said during his flight to Norway.

Mr. Shalom, meanwhile, made stops this week in Italy, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. He will travel next week to Belgium to address EU foreign ministers on the Middle East peace process.

The diplomatic swirl contrasts with the strains of a year ago, when a lawsuit was filed in a Belgian court accusing Mr. Sharon of war crimes during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

In January, Mr. Sharon chastised European leaders for favoring the Palestinians and said the European Union could not play a role in the peace process until its officials became more balanced.

But at a conference last month, a panel of EU heads of state denounced militant groups like Hamas and pledged to cut off funding to terrorism. That pressure helped prod militant groups into the current three-month cease-fire.

Major differences remain over the road map, with most European leaders rejecting Israeli efforts to isolate Mr. Arafat and opposing Israel’s construction of a security fence around the West Bank.

Relations between Israel and Europe improved along with the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, including cooperation on trade and scientific research.

But tensions sparked by the Palestinian uprising in September 2000 gradually spilled over into other realms. Military contractors in Britain and Germany have held up supplies to Israeli defense companies because of Israel’s handling of the revolt.

Yesterday, Mr. Shalom tried to persuade Europe’s soccer governing body to reinstate home matches for Israeli teams in European leagues.

“You can feel a new wind blowing,” said an EU official. “The tone on both sides maybe is a little less strident than it was two or three years ago.”

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