(photo credit: AP)
Israel needs a guarantee it will be able to maintain its character as a Jewish state, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has said in a statement pregnant with diplomatic significance since it implies acceptance of Israel's rejection of Palestinian demands for a "right of return" for refugees and their descendants.
Prodi made the comments at a private meeting in Rome on Saturday, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The statement faintly echoed US President George W. Bush's commitment in his April 2004 letter to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon prior to disengagement. Then, Bush wrote that the United States "is strongly committed to Israel's security and well-being as a Jewish state."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has been leading efforts over the last few months to get European leaders to make a similar statement. Senior European diplomatic officials in Israel said they knew of no plans for a public EU-wide statement of this nature.
Bush was even more explicit in his letter, saying "it seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refuges there, rather than in Israel."
Prodi's comments were made during a meeting in which the ground rules were that the content of statements would not be made public, so that the participants could speak freely.
Addressing ways to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Prodi said there was a need to provide security assurances to Israel, but that more importantly there was a need to give Israel a guarantee that it "would be able to maintain its Jewish character."
The Italian Embassy had no comment on the remarks.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who in his Sde Boker speech last week called on Palestinians to "relinquish your demand for the realization of the right of return," is scheduled to meet with Prodi next Wednesday during a three-day European visit to Berlin and Rome.
Israel has long argued that if Palestinian refugees and their descendants were allowed to move to Israel, it would tip the demographic balance in favor of the Arabs and lead to the demise of the Jewish state.
Prodi's comments came at a meeting during which he also raised the idea of expanding the European role at the Rafah border crossing to include the entire Philadelphi Corridor if both Israel and the Palestinians agreed. He also said that now was not necessarily the time for large-scale Middle East peace conferences, as some have recommended recently in Europe, but rather for confidence building measures by both sides.
Senior diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said Prodi's comments about the need to provide guarantees that Israel would remain a Jewish state were "very significant," because if European leaders talk about the right of Israel to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, "they are by definition rejecting the idea of a Palestinian right of return."
"It is important to get everyone on the same page on this," one official said. "If this point were agreed upon by the international community, then it could be possible to begin dealing with finding permanent solutions for the refugees without waiting for a final status agreement."
A public European declaration along these lines would represent a significant shift in European policy, the official added.
Another official, however, said it was very unlikely that Prodi, or any other European leader, would repeat his comments in public or come out with a declaration similar to Bush's, because of the waves it would cause in the Arab world.
Such a statement, he said, would bring the European community down squarely on Israel's side on an issue that has proven to be a major stumbling block in the diplomatic process, something the Europeans were unlikely to do at this time.