German FM due in Mideast to ‘encourage’ peace talks

Steinmeier will see Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief peace negotiator, and opposition leader Isaac Herzog

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German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories next week to lend backing to nascent peace efforts, a spokesman said Friday.

Ahead of a planned trip to Israel by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in late February, Steinmeier will visit Jerusalem Sunday and Monday for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, ministry spokesman Sebastian Fischer told reporters.

Steinmeier will also see Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief peace negotiator, and opposition leader Isaac Herzog before meeting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah, Fischer added.

“The peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians are in an important phase and in this context, the visit is intended as a sign of encouragement and support,” he said.

“The foreign minister wants to get his own sense of the situation.”

Merkel is to travel to Israel next month at Netanyahu’s invitation for annual talks between their two governments.

Steinmeier served as Germany’s top diplomat from 2005-2009. It will be his first trip to the region since taking office again last month as part of Merkel’s “grand coalition” government.

Germany is widely seen as Israel’s closest ally in Europe.

Its support of Israel has been a constant since World War II, although Berlin has upped pressure recently on Netanyahu to show greater restraint in building settlements in the Palestinian territories.

However Israel unveiled plans on Friday to construct more than 1,800 new settler homes, a watchdog said, in the face of fresh US efforts to push faltering peace talks forward.

Before heading to the Middle East, Steinmeier will join fellow ministers from the “Friends of Syria” grouping in Paris Sunday for talks with leaders of the mainstream opposition to President Bashar al-Assad to prepare for peace talks in Switzerland later this month, Fischer confirmed.