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"Starting May 1, 2004, our situation in Europe will be much better," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom declared in a conversation last week. Relating to the European survey which rated Israel as the state most dangerous to world peace, he alluded to the date, next May 1, when 10 countries from Central and Eastern Europe will join the European Union. "These states lack an Arafat complex," Shalom explained. He believes that the EU's enlargement offers a window of opportunity within which the organization might become friendlier to Israel, or at least more balanced.

Is he viewing the future through an overly rosy prism? It depends whom you ask. Officials in the Foreign Ministry equivocate today between two different schools of thought. Some concur with the assessment of the British Foreign Office, which holds that Europe is indeed on the threshold of a major political change. Others uphold an opposite, sober view, one which is espoused by the U.S. State Department, and which holds that the new EU members will be absorbed within "old Europe," and adopt the EU's long-standing agenda.

Three political figures from Eastern Europe visited Israel this week. Separate meetings with each of them - the prime minister of Slovakia, Poland's deputy foreign minister, and Latvia's interior minister - provided clues as to why professionals in Israel's Foreign Ministry are confused.

Listening to the Latvian minister, Maris Gulbis, one may think that the EU is on the verge of becoming Zionist. Gulbis is convinced that the EU's enlargement will lead it to formulate more sympathetic policies toward Israel. He eschews the thesis holding that the inclusion of the Eastern and Central European countries is tantamount to bringing an "American Trojan horse" into Europe; yet his words sound exactly like such a horse's neighs. Gulbis hints that Latvia and the other new EU members will not hesitate to stand up once again and defy French President Jacques Chirac, who attacked them for their express support of America's policy in Iraq. Latvia, he says, will not hesitate to confer with the U.S. in situations where it faces dilemmas about EU policy issues.

Gulbis supports the anti-Arafat boycott, understands why Israel boycotts EU delegates who have met with the PA chairman, and declares that Latvia cannot be expected to forge relations with "that entity" (the Palestinian Authority) so long as it has not democratized. The Arab world has "no special significance" in his view, whereas Israel should be regarded as a European country whose natural home is the EU. At the end of the discussion, the minister declares that he is fully cognizant of the implications of what he has said: I hope, he jokes, that Latvia will not be thrown out of the EU because of what I have said.

Slovakia's prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, articulates a somewhat more tepid view. He stresses his respect and sympathy for Israel and its leaders, but his words seem to be laced with the realpolitik calculations of a shrewd leader. Dzurinda states that he ranks among the signers of the famous circular which expressed support for U.S. moves in Iraq. He believes that "new voices" will be heard in Europe after the EU's enlargement; however, he warns, Israel should not "cultivate hopes that are too high." He says that Slovakia will not hesitate to express independent views in the EU; yet he rejects a division of Europe into "old" and "new" parts as being a simplification. Slovakia's prime minister refrained from visiting Arafat's Muqata compound in Ramallah, but he stresses that this non-visit should not be interpreted as a formal boycott of Arafat, who is "the elected leader of the Palestinian people." Dzurinda does not view the separation fence as the "central problem" in the dispute, yet he understands why the EU has reservations about the fence. The Geneva Accords, he says, are an "internal matter" with which he must not meddle - yet he puts his stamp of approval on the message of support which Colin Powell sent to those who initiated the draft agreement.

Especially interesting are positions upheld by Poland's deputy foreign minister, Adam Rotfeld. Poland is the largest and most important country which will join the EU, and without its participation the whole expansion project would not come into being. Poland's deputy foreign minister sounds like a statesman who was born, and has always lived, in the heartland of "old" Western Europe. Western European positions are his own. Even though he repeatedly apologizes for his trenchant criticism, he is not about to conceal his viewpoint - not, for instance, when it comes to his opposition to the Arafat boycott, since (in his view) Arafat is a "strong leader who enjoys broad legitimacy in the world," and who should be viewed as part of the solution, not the problem. He is similarly critical of the separation fence, saying it represents "a bad, unilateral decision which has no justification so long as a Palestinian state is not declared." And he is critical of Israel's settlement policies ("the Israelis are wise enough to understand how much damage they cause"). He supports the Geneva Accords, calling it "a good document, and the basis of a future agreement."

Rotfeld views the European Union as a worthy player side-by-side with the U.S. in global policy, and one that has a central role in the Middle East. He denounces Israel's boycott of the EU envoy to the Middle East, and he rejects the idea of linking all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

These discussions suggest that the new EU members will not operate as a bloc that has common interests and identical policies. Also for this reason, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials lean toward Dzurinda's advice, and are wary of clinging to great expectations. Most of the new members might be more sympathetic toward Israel than the Western EU members; but, when it comes to Middle East matters, it is not to be expected that the newcomers will take up weapons and crusade against the hard core of "old" Europe.