Sharon wants to solve internal problems on his visit to France

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived in France late Tuesday for a three-day visit aimed at turning a new leaf in Israeli-French ties after years of tension.

The Israeli prime minister is expected to meet with Chirac on Wednesday for talks, followed by a working lunch. He will also meet with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and hold meetings with Jewish leaders before returning home Friday.

Coming less than three weeks before Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip, the visit - long planned but repeatedly shelved due to recurrent strains in relations - has taken on a special symbolism, International Herald Tribune says.

Both sides agree the coming meetings and talks will be a new page of their relations.

Diplomats say it is also the clearest sign yet that both countries are ready to put behind them a string of mutual recriminations over anti-Semitism in France and divergent visions of Middle East policy that have characterized their relations for much of the past four years.

"Our relations with France are strengthening at every level, notably commercially," Sharon told French daily Le Monde in an article published Tuesday.

"It is the natural result of a very tangible improvement in relations in the past months," Nissim Zvili, Israel's ambassador to France, said on French radio. "There's a new openness and trust between our two governments."

Sharon was quoted as saying that the withdrawal from Gaza, which will begin in three weeks, is only a "preliminary step" before the implementation of the roadmap peace plan, an international blueprint aimed at the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

The Israeli prime minister warned that little progress could be made unless Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas takes tougher action to stop "terrorism."

There have always been contradictions between the countries. France, criticized by Israel for its opposition to the Iraq war, has long been accused of favoring the Palestinians and of disregarding Israeli security concerns. Relations hit rock bottom when the Israeli prime minister last July publicly urged France's 500,000 Jews to "immediately" immigrate to Israel to escape what he coined "the wildest anti-Semitism." Indignant French officials let it be known that the Israeli leader would not be welcome in Paris until he explained his comments.

Since then Israeli officials have made a point of applauding French efforts to clamp down on anti-Semitic violence, and Sharon has tried to justify his comments with a broader campaign to attract one million Jews to Israel over the coming 15 years.

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