Chirac gets apology for a stormy reception

 

PRESIDENT Jacques Chirac grabbed the Israeli plainclothes security man by the shoulder and shouted angrily: "I'm starting to bet fed up with this. What do your want? Do you want me to go back to my plane and go back to France? This is a provocation. It must stop."

Through the winding, narrow streets of Jerusalem's Old City, Israeli plainclothes police and soldiers harassed the visiting French president, his entourage and the presidential press corps. The aggressive behaviour wash a physical expression of the tension surrounding Mr Chirac's trip to Israel. The French leader is perceived to be pro-Arab and many Israelis say he is meddling in their affairs.

The plainclothes men pushed and shoved French government ministers and diplomats. They hemmed in Mr Chirac and prevented him shaking hands with local residents and shopkeepers. The foreign editor of the French newspaper Liberation was thrown to the ground and his shirt was ripped. Although they wore French and Israeli press badges, journalists were hit by the Israelis when they tried to approach Mr Chirac.

At a press conference several hours later, the Israeli prime minister claimed Mr Chirac's Via Dolorosa was a misunderstanding created by the over zealousness of security forces since the assassination of the former prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

The Israeli leader also apologised privately to Mr Chirac for what he called "perhaps excessive zeal in trying to protect a friend".

The French leader said that, in the light of the apology, he regarded the incident as closed.

At the press conference, Mr Netanyahu said Mr Chirac might serve as an intermediary between Israel and Arabs - a small triumph for the French president's fraught peace mission.

I am convinced that President Chirac will be able to help us develop our relations with our neighbours and with countries that are not our neighbours," Mr Netanyahu said.

Mrs Leila Shahid, the PLO's ambassador to Paris, accompanied Mr Chirac during his visit to Jerusalem's Old City.

seen with his own eyes, now how 170,000 Palestinians in east Jerusalem live under occupation," Mrs Shahid said when Mr Chirac lost his temper outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Mr Chirac's party of nearly 100 reached the entrance to the Haram Al Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam, in the midst of a noisy scuffle with the Jewish security men. Mr Chirac pushed the agent who pressed against him.

"I don't want you here," the French president shouted. "I am going to send a diplomatic note to protest against this unacceptable agitation."

Mr Chirac refused to enter the Domaine Sainte Anne, a French, monastery inside the walled old city, until two dozen armed Israeli soldiers waiting inside had departed.

The domaine is considered French sovereign territory.

"I am going to protest to Mr Netanyahu later," Mr Chirac said. "But here I am in France. Go and get them out. I don't want armed people in France."

His chief of staff and diplomatic adviser went in to negotiate the Israelis' departure while the French president waited. Ten minutes later the Israeli soldiers left quietly through a side door.

Even at the Wailing Wall, the last stop on his difficult promenade, Israelis made the French leader unwelcome. "Chirac, Iraq, the same fight," chanted a small group of demonstrators. As Mr Chirac walked away from the wall - the last remnant of King Solomon's temple - an orthodox Jew wearing a black hat and long black coat ran after him cursing.

The Israeli prime minister has asked Mr Chirac to convince the Palestinian leader, Mr Yasser Arafat, to accept Israeli security proposals for a partial withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron.

Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators talked into the early hours of this morning, amid signs that the long delayed deal on Israel's military pullout from Hebron was imminent, David Horovitz reports.