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Abbas Meets Solana in France, Will Visit Italy

Abbas Meets Solana in France, to Visit Italy Next Month

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas, who has met EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in France on Tuesday, is expected to make a visit to Rome next month, which will be his first official visit to the European Union.

Abbas will visit Rome on August 25 and 26, the Palestine National Authority (PNA) representative in Italy, Nemer Hammad, said on Tuesday.

Italy currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

Although Abbas has never made a formal visit to an EU country, he was in France on Tuesday for separate talks with the top EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Qatar’s emir.

The welcome in Rome could further bolster his standing with EU leaders, who have generally ignored Israeli and US requests to favor Abbas and ignore Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

The Israeli government, seeking to isolate the veteran Palestinian leader, warned in May that it would boycott any foreign official who met Arafat, but EU foreign ministers last week reaffirmed their commitment to dialogue with both men.

A notable exception to the EU stance was Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who strained ties with the Palestinians when he refused to meet with Arafat during a visit last month to the Middle East.

In a tit-for-tat, other top Palestinian officials including Abbas refused to hold talks with Berlusconi.

But the Italian premier, who has set his sights on an EU-led Middle East peace summit during his country’s six-month leadership, has seemingly aligned his stance with that of the 15-country bloc.

Palestinian official Hammad, describing Abbas’s itinerary in Rome next month, said he and Berlusconi would decide on a date for the Italian prime minister to visit the occupied Palestinian territory and possibly meet with Arafat.

Abbas himself stressed last week he could not be the sole voice for the Palestinians. “He is the leader of the Palestinian people,” Abbas said of Arafat in a Newsweek interview released Saturday. “I cannot be independent.”

The prime minister, returning from Washington, met up with Solana on Tuesday in France’s Mediterranean resort of Cannes.

“The aim (of the meeting) was to see an old friend who is helping in a constructive way to implement the roadmap,” said Solana after an hour of talks.

Solana was accompanied by the new EU envoy for the Middle East, Belgian diplomat Marc Otte, who is replacing Miguel Angel Moratinos of Spain.

During their meeting, Solana urged Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to press on with political and security reform, an EU spokeswoman said.

Solana’s spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, said the aim of the talks was to show EU support for Abbas’s reform agenda and maintain the momentum of Middle East peace efforts on the day Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met President Bush at the White House.

Solana earlier spoke by telephone to Palestinian Security Minister Mohammed Dahlan to discuss measures to make Palestinian security structures more robust, Gallach said.

“We would like to see better organized security structures under the authority of Dahlan with the support of the international community so they can assume more responsibility for security in the Palestinian territories. We need to see them producing an efficient and sound program,” she said.

An EU official said reducing the number of security outfits and putting them under Dahlan’s command was more urgent for now than trying to disarm the three main Palestinian groups that have accepted a three-month cease-fire.

Solana also urged Abbas to start work on reforming the Palestinian judiciary to bring it up to international standards, the official said.

The European Union is one of the four members of the so-called quartet, along with Russia, the United Nations and the United States, which have backed a “roadmap” for a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict calling for a creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

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