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A deep sigh of relief was heard in Jerusalem when it was learned in the summer of 2004 that Chris Patten, the British commissioner who in Israel was considered a symbol of anti-Israeli tendencies in the EU, would no longer serve in the EU commission. There were smiles when Israel learned that Patten, who until then had been commissioner for external relations, would be replaced by former Austrian foreign minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner. During her term as foreign minister, they said in Jerusalem, she positioned Austria as one of the most pro-Israel countries in the EU, pressing over and over again for improving the uneasy relations between Europe and Israel.

The minister reaped the fruits when Israel decided, in July 2003, to drop the diplomatic boycott of Vienna and to renew full diplomatic ties with Austria.

Ferrero-Waldner, who arrived here yesterday for her first visit as EU commissioner for external relations, is now looking forward to the contribution the EU can make in the future. She congratulates Israel on the "important gestures" it made toward the Palestinians on the eve of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, and "the leadership" Mahmoud Abbas has shown on the Palestinian side. She calls on the sides "not to miss the rare momentum" that has formed, demands they meet their commitments in the road map and promises Europe will help as much as it can.

In Israel, Ferrero-Waldner, 55, is referred to as "a fluent diplomat," "an ambitious professional" and a "player with presence." The first woman named to run her country's foreign ministry (2000-2004) reveals some of the ambitions guiding her when she ignores the question about the lip service paid by most Israeli representatives concerning a role for Europe in the Middle East political process: "We are a very important player, since after all, we have the trust of the Palestinians." You can't make progress without us, she is in effect saying, and adds a significant sentence, according to which she has designated for Europe a role "that is not only economic," meaning Europe will not merely sign the checks.

She is hinting that Europe wants its foot in the political door here.

In that context, she is encouraged by the positive signals coming from Washington about American-European cooperation in the region. For her part, Ferrero-Waldner responds by minimizing the trans-Atlantic dispute and emphasizes the common denominator: "The U.S. and EU share a lot more agreements than disagreements. Even when our messages are different, ultimately in most cases our goals are identical - in the Iranian case, for example, a country without nuclear weapons."

As for including Hezbollah in the EU list of terror groups, she'll leave that to the European council, meaning the member states. But she does not stamp out reports in Jerusalem about a softening in the EU toward Hamas. "Hamas will certainly take part in the Palestinian parliamentary elections this summer. So I believe that at some point it will become necessary to discuss the conditions [for removing Hamas from the terror list]."