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Summer vacations will soon end and the government will face a political task of supreme importance - rehabilitating relations with Europe. The time has come to acknowledge the centrality of ties to "the old continent," and to strive to halt the deterioration in Israel's standing and legitimacy in Europe at a time when diplomatic dialogue more closely resembles a debating match and the word "sanctions" no longer sounds hallucinatory. Israel must erect a "political fence" in Europe, just as it is building a protective wall against Palestinian suicide bombers.

The blow that EU countries dealt Israel by voting at the UN assembly in favor of the Hague court's findings on the separation fence shattered two illusions in Jerusalem. It turned out that the slogan "Sharon will evacuate settlements" which cast its spell on many on the Israeli left and has earned a sympathetic response in the U.S. too, carries no weight in Europe.

Further disappointed was the hope that the EU expansion eastward would bring into its ranks pro-American countries that are less committed to the Palestinian matter. At the moment of truth, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary prefered to line up behind France and Holland.

Mutual recriminations are all too well known. The Europeans abhor Israel's brutish behavior, occupation, the settlements, and the fence. They believe Israel is evading negotiations with the Palestinians to perpetuate its conquest. In many continental circles, Ariel Sharon is a symbol of militarism and trampling on human rights.

From the Israeli side, European policy looks like a cover for anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, blind admiration for Yasser Arafat and a naive, nerdy obedience to universal principles that overlook terrorism and the Arabs' hatred of Israel.

The list of interests is also well known. Europe is Israel's main trade partner and its standing as the source of international legitimacy is growing. The great and arrogant America also floundered in trying to circumvent Europe on the way to Iraq and is now trying to salvage the trans-Atlantic alliance.

By contrast, it looks like Israel is holding the key to incorporating the Europeans in the peace process and in commercial and technological opportunities absent from the Arab world. We must break the disputatious cycle and clear a new path. That is not to say Israel must withdraw tomorrow from every millimeter in the territories so as to be welcomed in Paris and Madrid.

The previous Israeli message, which talked about fighting terror and a clash of civilizations to contend with Islam, was rejected in Europe. But now Israel has something to sell - disengagement and moving the fence to the Green Line. And the Europeans can respond with a more positive vote on the follow-up UN resolution on the fence, and with greater openness at the talks scheduled to resume next week on including Israel in the "expanded Europe" initiative.

Israel's leadership is not utterly impervious to Europe. Silvan Shalom, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu tried to make a change in the relationship. They weren't strong enough to withstand the prime minister. Now there are indications that Sharon, too, is troubled by the erosion in Israel's standing and by the risk of sanctions.

Sharon is planning to visit several continental capitals at the end of the year. That's not enough, and neither are telephone calls to friendly leaders. The foreign minister and his ministry have to promote a diplomatic and information campaign that will reach a broad European public, with the full backing of the prime minister.

But these are tactical matters. It's no less important to formulate a long-term Israeli strategy toward Europe. Does Israel want to join the EU in the future? Merge economically into Europe? When Turkey asked to join the EU in 1987, it was plagued by a reputation no less problematic than Israel's today. But the Turks didn't give up, and even if it takes a bit longer, their joining seems more practical today.

Israel should set a goal and manage relations accordingly. That way, Israel will display a price tag for a future withdrawal from the territories, and perhaps also gradually extricate itself from the trap of illegitimacy.