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Sharon Begins Visit to Italy - 2003-11-17

Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has begun a three-day visit to Italy for talks that are expected to focus on the Middle East situation and the European Union's relationship with the Jewish state. Rome currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has been a staunch supporter of Israel despite strong EU criticism of Israel's military action to quell violence by the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expects to find an understanding and loyal partner in the current rotating president of the European Union. Mr. Sharon will hold talks with Mr. Berlusconi and other top Italian political leaders, but he will not meet with Pope John Paul II.

On the eve of Mr. Sharon's visit to Rome, the pope criticized Israel's plans to build a separation barrier in the West Bank. The barrier is controversial because part of it is being constructed on occupied land and will isolate tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon's visit comes amid growing concern about anti-Semitic attacks in Europe. The Italian and Israeli prime ministers are expected to discuss what is being perceived as increasing hostility in Europe toward Israelis and Jews.

In Paris, French President Jacques Chirac is also holding a high-level meeting on ways to fight anti-Semitism following the firebombing of a Jewish boys' school.

Israel accuses many EU members of favoring the Palestinians. In Italy, Mr. Sharon is again expected to make it clear that the European Union will have a limited role in Middle Eastern diplomacy if its members continue to press for economic sanctions against Israel and its policies.

A recent poll for the European Commission suggested that the majority of EU citizens see Israel as the biggest threat to world peace. The poll caused outrage amongst Israelis.