July 27, 2005

France, Israel end row, improve ties at Paris talks

By Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Sophie Louet

PARIS (Reuters) - The leaders of France and Israel put a
row over anti-Semitism behind them on Wednesday and discussed
ways to bring peace and security to the Middle East.

President Jacques Chirac welcomed Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon for a lunch meeting in Paris, marking a new
chapter in Franco-Israeli relations after a row last year when
Sharon urged French Jews to escape anti-Semitism by emigrating.

"The French people want relations between Israel and France
to develop," Chirac's spokesman quoted him as telling Sharon at
the meeting.

"We appreciate your gesture in coming to Paris in the
current context," Chirac said, referring to Israel's
preparations to pull out from the Gaza Strip next month.

Chirac's welcome would have been unthinkable last year when
relations hit a low after Sharon's criticism of anti-Jewish
feeling in France. Keen to improve ties, Sharon said he invited
Chirac for a reciprocal visit to Israel.

"There was a comfortable and pleasant atmosphere," Sharon
said of the nearly three-hour meeting, adding that it "went
very well ... perhaps the laughter could be heard outside."

France is home to Western Europe's biggest Jewish and
Muslim communities and many recent anti-Jewish attacks have
been blamed on Muslim youths angry at the situation in the
Middle East.

France on Monday reported a sharp drop in the number of
anti-Semitic acts committed in the first half of this year.

But many in France's 600,000-strong Jewish community remain
worried about anti-Jewish attacks, especially in schools. Three
teenagers were put under official investigation on Tuesday for
throwing bottles of acid into a Jewish school in Paris.

Despite praising France's efforts to curb anti-Semitism,
Sharon has stood by his call for Jews to emigrate to Israel,
including from France. The Jewish Agency for Israel expects
more than 3,000 people to move to Israel from France this year.


The two leaders addressed international efforts to prevent
Iran from developing nuclear weapons -- an issue made all the
more urgent after Tehran said earlier on Wednesday it will
resume some key atomic work.

Sharon told reporters "the French see eye to eye with us
about the danger of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons."

France wants guarantees that Iran cannot produce material
usable in nuclear bombs and believes the U.N. Security Council
should deal with the issue if this is not the case, Chirac

Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, wants
Paris to help prevent arch foe Iran getting atomic bombs.

Chirac told Sharon "we have the goal of obtaining objective
guarantees that Iran renounces all activity in the field of the
production of fissile material," his spokesman said.

Iran says its nuclear program is for electricity, and vowed
to resume some key work on its nuclear fuel cycle regardless of
what European diplomats might propose to defuse a dispute over
its atomic ambitions.

France is part of a European Union troika, with Germany and
Britain, trying to resolve the dispute with Iran.

Chirac also said he hoped Israel's planned Gaza pullout
would act as a catalyst for Middle East peace.

"On the eve of the disengagement from Gaza ... France is at
the side of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people, so
that on the occasion of this historic decision, we can assist
in a revival of the peace process," he said before the meeting.

Sharon said the rapprochement with France illustrated how
Israel's standing in the West has improved due to its Gaza
withdrawal plan.

(Additional reporting by Tiziana Cauli and Laure Bretton)