EU Downplays Damning Poll, Says Won't Affect Mideast Policy

European Union officials sought Monday to minimize the significance of a survey in which more Europeans named Israel as a threat to world peace than any other country, saying the question had been "misleading" and that the answers would not affect EU policy.

The EU poll, conducted in mid-October, found 59 percent of EU citizens said "yes" when asked if Israel posed "a threat to peace in the world," more than the 53 percent who believed Iran and North Korea were a threat.

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom rejected claims that the poll ranking Israel was proof of European anti-Semitism.

Shalom said the poll, due out Monday but leaked over the weekend to the Spanish daily El Pais, reflects the over exposure of Israel in European media.

"There's no comparing the amount of media exposure Israel gets in Europe compared to Iran or North Korea. The images broadcast from here have an impact, but we should not get exerted by it," he told Haaretz.

Shalom said a poll published a month ago in Europe showed a significant improvement in Israel's image in recent months. "But who cares about such polls? Even though the previous poll might even be more accurate than the current one, it ended up on the back pages of the papers. They prefer to give big headlines when the news about Israel is negative."

Shalom links the latest poll results to Europe's efforts - and particularly France's - to position itself as a counterweight to the U.S.

"This isn't necessarily a matter of anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian; it's a much broader issue of expressing views different from the U.S., to establish itself as a power," he said.

Shalom was asked about the Simon Wiesenthal Center's call to throw the European Union out of the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers, and deny it any role in negotiations.

"I don't want to clash with this or that institute, but I don't see things the extreme way they do," he said. "One need not dramatize every poll and there's no need for bile."

He said the poll could also be viewed as the result of decades of Israeli neglect of the European arena, while at the same time the Palestinians invested much effort in Europe.

But Shalom wished to emphasize that Europe is "not a lost cause." He cited a number of Israeli accomplishments recently - the inclusion of the political wing of the Hamas on the EU terrorist list; R&D and agricultural agreements that were delayed for more than two years were recently signed with the EU; and the Europeans foiled a Palestinian initiative to send the separation fence to the international court at the Hague.

But, he said, he is not deluding himself. "Of course there are disputes that cannot be ignored," but he is convinced that Israel's investment in the continent is worthwhile - and that its position will improve on May 1, 2004, when the EU is set to be joined by 10 central and eastern European countries, who have more "balanced" positions toward the Middle East conflict.

Berlusconi condemns poll resultsItalian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Monday condemned the results of the poll. In a telephone call to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, Berlusconi said he was "surprised and indignant" at the findings of Monday's poll.

The Italian prime minister said he was convinced that the findings did not represent the real attitude of Europeans towards Israel.

"Europe is strongly committed to finding peace in the Middle East," he stressed.

Italy currently holds the rotating EU presidency.