Ehud Olmert does not expect the violence in the Gaza Strip to mar his first visit to Europe as prime minister, which kicks off on Monday with a meeting and press conference alongside his British counterpart Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street.
Speaking to reporters en route to London, Olmert said that explaining his West Bank realignment plan would top his agenda at the Blair meeting. He said he would also try to present the deaths of seven Palestinians on a Gaza beach on Friday - either by Israeli artillery fire or by Palestinian ordnance - in proportion and within the context of the Kassam rockets being fired on Sderot.
"Past experience teaches that it is not impossible to create myths that are disconnected from facts," Olmert said. "The reactions of every country to the incident took into account the circumstances in which the incident took place and the situation Israel is in. Everything will be placed in perspective and on the visit, I will present the matters that must be clarified, especially the realignment plan."
Olmert rejected criticism that Israel rushed to apologize for the casualties. He said he expressed condolences but that no apology would be issued unless it is determined that Israel was at fault. He said the matter was sensitive and had to be properly investigated without engaging in what he called "senseless speculation."
British Ambassador to Israel Simon MacDonald, who accompanied Olmert on the visit, said that the timing of the trip in the aftermath of Friday's incident was not ideal but that he did not believe it would interfere with its primary goals.
"The main item on the agenda will be the next steps in the peace process," Macdonald said. "That's what's most important in Olmert's first visit to Europe since his election. My prime minister wants to know what chances there are for negotiations with the Palestinians. He will also hear about the other options being considered."
Much like with Olmert's visit to Washington last month, many of the key issues were discussed in advance by Olmert and Blair's advisers to prevent any embarrassing misunderstandings. Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowitz and foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman were in contact with Blair's foreign policy adviser Nigel Scheinwald and discussed the wording of Blair's comments on realignment.
Olmert has met with Blair twice in London and once in Jerusalem and officials close to both men said they had a positive relationship. Macdonald said Olmert set a good tone for their first meeting, when he gave Blair a jersey of his favorite soccer team, Betar Jerusalem, with the number 10 on the back.
Such a positive atmosphere will be needed on Monday to overcome differences between the two on the chances for successful negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the urgency of the Iranian threat.
Olmert will also meet on Monday with British Jewish leaders and with Conservative opposition leader David Cameron. He will meet Tuesday with new Foreign Secretary Margaret Becket and Blair's presumed successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, before flying to Paris.
On Wednesday, Olmert will meet with French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. He will also dedicate a remembrance wall to righteous gentiles at a Holocaust memorial together with de Villepin and meet French Jewish leaders. His tour will end on Thursday with a meeting with Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy.
Olmert decided to appoint Vice Premier Shimon Peres as acting prime minister, while he and his vice minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, are both in Europe.