x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

German foreign minister begins Middle East tour

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is on his 14th Middle East tour since taking office in November 2005.

The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said he was hopeful of a "fresh start" in the Middle East peace process thanks to new US engagement in the region as he kicked off a regional tour on Monday. "I hope we are on the verge of a fresh start, a fresh start that has been made possible by the initiative of the US president ? a decisive, fervent call for a two-state solution made not only to Israel and the Palestinians but also to the Arab neighbours," Mr Steinmeier told reporters.

"We must work toward having the moderate Arab states participate in this task," he said as he headed into talks with the Israeli president Shimon Peres. "I believe that is also the point of view behind the new initiative of the American president (Barack Obama). And we, from the German and of course European side, want to do everything we can to support this initiative." Mr Steinmeier also met with the senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and was due to hold talks with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman later in Jerusalem.

Mr Steinmeier arrived in Israel early on Monday at the start of a two-day tour that will also take him to Syria and Lebanon. His arrival in the Jewish state comes on the same day as a meeting in London between the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell amid friction between the two close allies over Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Mr Steinmeier said Europe and Germany had a crucial role to play in laying the groundwork for a Middle East peace backed by Arab neighbours, and that "Germany has a voice that is heard in the entire region".

"I will continue to press for Israel's difficult neighbours ? in Syria and in Lebanon ? to participate constructively in these efforts toward a two-state solution. If that is successful, it will be to the advantage of all in the region." Mr Steinmeier, who is also vice chancellor and is challenging conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in a September general election, is on his 14th Middle East tour since taking office in November 2005 in a left-right government.

Berlin has described the absence of violence surrounding the Lebanese elections on June 7 and improved relations between Lebanon and Syria as factors that present a "window of opportunity" that Europe must help to seize. Such steps include building infrastructure for the Palestinians and training local security forces to help prepare for eventual statehood. During his stop in Damascus on Tuesday, Mr Steinmeier is to hold talks with his Syrian counterpart Walid al Muallem and the president Bashar al Assad, before meeting the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman and the prime minister designate Saad Hariri in Beirut.

*AFP