Netanyahu to Visit France, Italy

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu left for his first European trip on Tuesday, where he'll meet with Italian leaders in Rome and French officials in Paris.

Netanyahu will meet first with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a strong supporter of Israel among his European colleagues. The following day, he will meet with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Italy has become Iran's leading trade partner, necessitating visits to Teheran by Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, which Netanyahu would like to see curtailed.

On Thursday, the Israeli prime minister will travel to Paris to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a close personal friend, and with Prime Minister Francois Fillion and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Sarkozy has called for an international conference to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian talks, which neither the U.S. nor Russia are embracing.

The U.S. prefers to focus on freezing Israeli construction in Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and east Jerusalem, while Russia wants to host a Middle East summit later this year.

Iran and the diplomatic process with the Palestinians will top the prime minister's agenda in both countries. Talks will also include bilateral relations with the European Union.

Concerning Iran, Netanyahu will likely point out that the recent elections and protests that followed revealed the true face of the Islamic Republic, making an even stronger case for addressing its development of nuclear arms capabilities.

Netanyahu will further explain the importance of Arab recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland and the government's rationale behind demilitarization for a future Palestinian state.

Before returning to Israel, Netanyahu will meet with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell in Paris.

Mitchell is expected to press President Obama's call for a freeze of all construction in Judea, Samaria and east Jerusalem.

In his speech at Bar-Ilan University a week ago, Netanyahu said Israel will not freeze natural growth in Jewish towns in Israel's biblical heartland nor in the nation's capital.

Sources: The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz

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