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Sarkozy Starts Visit to Israel

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, begins a three-day visit to Israel on Sunday in what the press back home is reporting as further proof of an improvement in relations between the two countries.

It'll be only the third time a French president has visited Israel, and Sarkozy is likely to have a far more conciliatory tone than his predecessors.

That shouldn't be too difficult. In 1996, during a visit to Jeruslam's old town, Jacques Chirac lost his rag with Israeli security as he was jostled during a walkabout and famously threatened to take the first 'plane home.

And in 1982 during a speech to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, François Mitterrand received a less than warm welcome when he stressed the need for Palestinians' rights to be recognised alongside Israel.

Not exactly renowned for the lightest of diplomatic touches, Sarkozy's trip has been diligently organised to avoid similar confrontations.

First up he's being kept well clear of East Jerusalem, he won't see the reality of how Palestinians live and he'll be kept well away from the "wall" or "separation barrier" (depending on whose definition you accept) .

Even though he's due to meet the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, it's being interpreted in the French press as "minimum service." The two men will meet on Tuesday in Bethlehem rather than Ramallah for "practical reasons" according to Sarkozy's own press office.

And when he addresses the Knesset on Monday, Sarkozy is bound to receive nods of approval should he renew his call for tougher international sanctions on Iran if it continues to fail to "come clean" on its nuclear programme.

It'll also be interesting to see exactly what he'll have to say about Israeli settlement plans and whether, as rumoured, he'll call for a freeze on them and an easing-up of travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Sarkozy's trip has several goals - political, diplomatic and business - and has been scheduled a little earlier than planned at the insistence of the Israeli president, Shimon Pires, who was Sarkozy's guest in Paris back in March.

According to Ayelet Frish, a spokeswoman for Peres, he was reportedly blown away by the welcome he received in Paris and wants to return the favour by making Sarkozy feel at home. On Monday Peres will throw a gala dinner in honour of Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

The fast-forwarded schedule shouldn't pose too many problems for Sarkozy and indeed could work to his advantage. It'll give him a chance to test the waters in the Middle East peace process.

France takes on the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union in July and will become the de facto leader of the "Quartet" ( EU, Russia, United States and United Nations) trying to mediate in the peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He's also keen to put the finishing touches to one of his major international initiatives - the Mediterranean Union.

It's due to be launched in Paris on July 13, and Sarkozy would like nothing more than a photo-coup handshake between the Israeli prime minister, Ehoud Olmert and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad during that launch. Both men are expected to attend.

Apart from his wife, Sarkozy will also be accompanied by three members of the government: the foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, the interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie and the justice minister Rachida Dati - who never seems to miss a chance to collect air miles.

Any state visit by Sarkozy of course also has commercial undertones - he is after all France's best salesman. So there's perhaps no surprise that going along for the ride will be Laurence Parisot, boss of the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (Movement of French Enterprises, MEDEF) the largest union of employers in this country. She'll heading a delegation of business leaders, so don't be surprised if there are a few dotted lines signed or at least negotiations started.

Sarkozy's visit to Israel will be well worth watching to see just how he brings his own very personal style to politics in a part of the world in which he is reportedly being perceived as the most pro-Israeli French head of state in recent years.

Submitted by:

Johnny Summerton

Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist specialising in politics, sport and travel. For more on what's making the headlines here in France, log on to his site at http://www.persiflagefrance.com




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