French foreign minister begins Mideast tour
French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie Thursday kicked off a four-day Middle East tour, her first since taking office last year, with stops in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Jordan.
The trip is expected to focus heavily on ways to kickstart stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which ground to a halt shortly after they started last September over the issue of Israeli settlement construction.
Alliot-Marie, who landed shortly after midnight, was to meet with top Israeli officials on Thursday, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defence Minster Ehud Barak.
She will also meet with Palestinian prime Salam Fayyad at the French consulate in east Jerusalem.
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.
Alliot-Marie was expected to meet 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.
She will also visit Israel's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.
On Friday, she travel to Gaza in what will be the first time a French foreign minister has been able to visit the coastal enclave since September 2005.
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