TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to visit Paris in July for the first time in almost four years, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said on Thursday, in what could help ease tensions between the two countries that were fueled by Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The Israeli leader last visited France in July 2001, a few months after the start of the violence. Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas declared a cease-fire in February aimed at ending the uprising.
The French government invited Sharon to visit Paris in August, but the Israeli prime minister asked to push forward the meeting to July, ahead of the planned Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip, Yedioth said.
The prime minister is also expected to meet Abbas at their second summit on June 21.
Relations improve after Arafat death
Diplomatic relations between Israel and Paris have improved following the cease-fire and since the death in November of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who Chirac regarded as an ally, but who Israel and the United States have always accused of fomenting violence.
Notably, Chirac visited Arafat on his deathbed at a French hospital days before he died.
Many tensions have brewed between Israel and France in recent years.
Chirac slammed Sharon in July 2004 for calling on French Jews to move to Israel due to what the Israeli leader said was a rise in anti-Semitism in France. The French president said at the time that Sharon was not welcome in Paris unless he explained himself. An official in the Israeli embassy in Paris later said Sharon meant to say that all Jews belong in Israel.
Visit could anger Japan
However, the prime minister’s visit to Paris could fuel tensions between Israel and Japan. Sharon had declined an invitation by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to visit Tokyo ahead of the Gaza pullout, saying he was too busy planning the withdrawal.
Israel has seen increased contacts with foreign dignitaries in recent months, especially since Sharon and Abbas declared the cease-fire. Foreign ministers of Guatemala, South Korea, China and Egypt have visited or plan to visit the Jewish state since then.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is expected to fly to Israel and the Palestinian Authority next week to help both sides coordinate plans for the Gaza pullout.