German foreign minister to visit Israel, Gaza: spokesman

5th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is to travel to Israel and the Gaza Strip next week aiming to lend momentum to efforts to relaunch direct peace negotiations, his spokesman said Friday.

Andreas Peschke said that Westerwelle, who is also Germany's vice chancellor, planned to hold talks in Jerusalem Sunday and visit humanitarian projects in Gaza Monday, if security conditions allow.

"The aim of this fourth visit of the minister to the Middle East is to sound out the prospects for the peace process," he told a regular government news conference.

"This is a quite critical phase and the minister will work toward a resumption of direct negotiations (between Israelis and Palestinians)."

In Jerusalem, Westerwelle is to meet with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, President Shimon Peres and the family of captured soldier Gilad Shalit as well as Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

"During his visit in the Gaza Strip, he will examine specific ways the humanitarian situation in the area can be improved," Peschke said.

Westerwelle will not meet with officials from radical Islamist group Hamas, which seized power in Gaza in 2007.

He spoke to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who will be away during Westerwelle's visit, by telephone on Thursday, Peschke said.

Hamas and other Palestinian radicals captured Shalit, now 24, in a deadly cross-border raid in June 2006 and have demanded hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants, in exchange for his release.

Germany is believed to be working behind the scenes to negotiate his release.

Westerwelle has travelled to the Middle East four times since taking office one year ago. This will be his second visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories as minister.

His planned Gaza stop follows visits by European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in July and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb last month.

US President Barack Obama launched negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on September 2.

But the talks ran aground just weeks later, with Abbas refusing to return to the negotiating table unless Israel renewed a moratorium on settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

European diplomats say they aim to make progress before campaigning for the US presidential election in November 2012 gets underway, distracting from any Washington-backed drive to foster the peace process.

© 2010 AFP

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