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Europe

West Bank Barrier, Anti-Semitism Cloud Israeli Leaders' European Visit

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in Europe at a time of acute tension between the two sides. The construction of the West Bank barrier and Europe's perceived latent anti-Semitism are major discussion points.

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EU diplomats once again condemn the West Bank barrier

Europe's foreign ministers demanded Tuesday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stop the construction of the West Bank barrier at a time when EU-Israeli relations are going through a rough period.

The statement followed a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels in which Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom took part. The ministers, who threw their support behind an Oct. 21 UN resolution condeming the barrier, said the two-state solution to the Intifada was now physically impossible because of the barrier.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in Rome for a two-day visit with close European ally Silvio Berlusconi, didn't respond to the declaration. The right-wing Israeli leader, speaking to Jewish leaders before his visit last week, said that foreign criticism of Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories stemmed from an anti-Semitism that denied Israel's "birthright to exist," according to wire services.

His office said Sharon hoped Berlusconi, who's country currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, will lobby for Israel.

"(Berlusconi) is a staunch fighter against anti-Semitism and therefore I think he will be open to our complaints and also to action that can be taken in Europe to stop this," government spokesman Raanan Gissin told Reuters.

Foreign Minister Shalom called on Monday for an EU minister's council that focuses specifically on rooting out and defeating anti-Semitism.

Heightened suspicion in recent weeks

The comments come at a time of acute tension in an Israeli-EU relationship that has never been completely harmonious.

Yassir Arafat

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat

A deep-seeded belief that Europe takes the Palestinians' side in the Middle East has often meant Sharon's government doesn't take the EU seriously as a negotiating partner. In addition, the ghost of anti-Semitism, which Europe has been trying unsuccessfully to shake off, has reared its ugly head in recent weeks.

An EU poll earlier this month showing that Europeans believe Israel is the greatest threat to world peace further heightened tensions. Embarassing comments by a German parliamentarian describing Jews as a "race of perpetrators" and a firebomb attack on a Jewish school in a Paris suburb over the weekend have weakened Europe's position that it is cracking down on anti-Semitism.

Anti-Israeli sentiment has lead to an imbalance in the way the EU handles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said a government spokesman ahead of Sharon's visit.

"There needs to be a more balanced European policy to Israel if they want to play a more constructive role," Gissin said referring to Europe's interest in participating in the Middle East peace negotiations.

Israel will stop boycott of EU diplomat

EU officials view the Sharon government's Palestinian policy as heavy-handed, leading to the United Nations resolution condeming the construction of the West Bank barrier. Brussels is also miffed that Sharon has refused to meet EU envoy Marc Otte because the Belgian diplomat met with Yassir Arafat in September.

Diplomats on both sides said they are trying to smooth out the EU-Israel spat. Shalom said foreign ministry officials will meet with Otte and break the boycott. He said the EU is willing to change negative perceptions.

"Europeans are ready to go the distance to bring about a change in the tone of their politics," he said.

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