ROME - On his last visit to Rome, in the summer of 2001, Ariel Sharon was greeted by a stormy demonstration in Venice Plaza, the city's main square. When he was back there this week, the demonstrators were gone, replaced by hundreds of wreaths laid in memory of the Italian policemen killed in Iraq. The national mourning in Italy, which for the first time suffered a blow from Arab terrorists, was a convenient backdrop to Sharon's visit.
Sharon effused affection and expressed his condolences, and the Italians responded in kind. His hosts, led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, avoided the usual criticism of Israeli activities in the territories so common in Europe. According to the Israeli entourage, the only criticism about the separation fence was that Israel is not properly explaining its importance.
Yasser Arafat, settlements and the outposts weren't even mentioned; everyone agreed terror is bad and must be fought. The only sour note was the last minute cancelation of the joint Sharon-Berlusconi press conference, apparently because of the Italian premier's concern about a public dispute with the pope, who has come out against the fence.
Sharon couldn't have asked for more in Europe. There's a chasm of misunderstanding between him and the Europeans: Sharon interprets their criticism of Israel's actions against the Palestinians as an expression of anti-Semitism, meant to deny the Jewish state its right to self-defense. He believes Israel must struggle for its legitimacy, and that the campaign is not lost.
The latest expressions of Jew hatred in Europe and the terror attacks in Europe gave him ample opportunity to be the accuser this time, and not only absorb criticism. But there is a certain degree of contradiction in his position. Sharon wants the Europeans to develop trade with Israel irrespective of the Palestinian issue, "without political influences," but also demands they condition their trade with Iran on its ceasing its nuclear development program.
The political climate is convenient for Sharon right now. The political process appears ready to resume, and he scattered positive messages in Rome about his upcoming meeting with Ahmed Qureia, his acceptance - with reservations - of a cease-fire, and recognition of a Palestinian state if the terror is eradicated. He rebuffs any argument that his efforts for reforms in the Palestinian Authority have failed, since Arafat is back in the picture. His aides explain that the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister, which has now become routine, is another stage in pushing Arafat to the sidelines.
The media spin has also changed. After the shooting attack by the Tanzim on Monday, when two soldiers were killed at the checkpoint on the tunnels road, Sharon avoided mention of the organization's ties to Arafat, as he used to make clear in the past. Instead, he blamed new patrons for Tanzim - Iran and Syria - always convenient to blame.
It is difficult to find any real enthusiasm for Qureia among Sharon and his aides. The great expectations from Mahmoud Abbas have disappeared with regard to his heir, who is perceived as much more sophisticated and practical. But the Israeli approach is full of hope - even though it is not clear what it is based on, unless it is meant to prepare the groundwork for blame in the future.
They say if Qureia is serious in his statements about a cease-fire as a solution, there's no chance for progress. And they hope that beneath the statements hides a secret plan to eradicate terror. After all, it's not credible, they say in Sharon's entourage, that such an experienced politician as Qureia really is counting on a cease-fire and doesn't know that he has to take practical security steps.
That's what they heard from experts and longtime Qureia acquaintances and that's why it was decided to engage him in dialogue, despite hesitations resulting from his subordination to Arafat. That gap in a priori expectations by the sides threatens the success of the move, which in any case is based on both sides' fatigue from the war and not from sudden breakthrough into mutual trust.
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