France's new top diplomat in Mideast peace push

20th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was in Israel on Thursday to seek ways of reviving the moribund Middle East peace talks which she said were crucial for the future of the region.

"We have to move toward peace, it is in the interest of everyone and in the interest of Israel's security," she told reporters at the start of a four-day tour that also includes the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Jordan.

Her trip comes as the international community seeks ways of hauling Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table after talks broke down late last year over a dispute about Jewish settlement building.

"We support all efforts towards peace -- the future of the region depends on it," she said, calling on the United States to include the "European Union and moderate Arab countries" in attempts to kickstart some sort of peace dialogue.

Alliot-Marie, who landed shortly after midnight on what is her first tour of the region since being appointed in November, met in the morning with opposition leader Tzipi Livni and President Shimon Peres.

"If we want to have a relationship based on trust, we must push forward with the negotiations and with practical steps," she said. "Israel's security will be guaranteed all the more when a stable Palestinian state exists."

Peres, in remarks at the meeting broadcast by public radio, acknowledged "difficulties in the peace process," but said they were no reason to "stop the process or to give up."

"I think that the role of Europe in general and the role of France is to inject legitimacy into the current situation so that the Middle East doesn't descend into chaos," he said.

Following a lunch meeting with her Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, Alliot-Marie held talks with Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad at the French consulate in Jerusalem.

During the evening, she met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a dinner with Defence Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu told her Israel will work to end Gaza's dependency on his country.

"During their conversation... Netanyahu said that Israel would strive to disengage from the Gaza Strip with regard to infrastructure utilities like electricity and water," a statement said, providing no further details.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but still supplies some 70 percent of the strip's electricity, with the rest being provided by Egypt and local power plants.

It was not immediately clear where Gaza would get its electricity if Israel cuts off supplies. In the past, Israel has tried to use electricity cuts as a way to pressure Gaza's Hamas rulers.

On Friday, Alliot-Marie is to travel to Gaza in what will be the first visit by a French foreign minister since September 2005.

Aside from the peace process, talks were expected to touch on political developments in Lebanon and moves to curb Iran's nuclear aspirations.

Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been on hold since September 26, when a 10-month freeze on Jewish construction in the West Bank expired.

The Palestinians have said they will not resume negotiations while Israel is building on land they want for their future state, but US and international efforts to convince Netanyahu to impose a new ban failed late last year.

During the day, Alliot-Marie also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and met briefly with the parents of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier with French citizenship who has been held in the Gaza Strip by militants since his kidnap in June 2006.

During a Jerusalem meeting with Noam and Aviva Shalit, Alliot-Marie promised "to pass on a message (to the EU) that the prisoner should receive Red Cross visits."

Her trip comes in the wake of criticism back home from the opposition and some corners of the French media over her response to protests in Tunisia.

Alliot-Marie reportedly offered Tunisia's now-deposed president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali French security support to control the demonstrations that eventually ousted him.

© 2011 AFP

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