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EU calls on Israel to resume peace talks immediately

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(SAARISELKA) - The European Union on Saturday urged Israel to urgently resume peace talks with the Palestinians on the eve of foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's first visit to the region.

Ashton, who is leaving for a tour of the Middle East from Sunday, warned that reconciliation efforts could fail for good and slammed this week's announcement of plans to build new settler homes in east Jerusalem.

"I'm very concerned, I'm concerned that Israeli announced this just as the proximity talks were beginning" between Israelis and the Palestinians, she said.

Ashton called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "to demonstrate leadership," as she spoke to journalists on the sidelines of a meeting with several European foreign ministers in Saariselka, in northern Finland.

"We need a negotiated peace settlement, it needs to happen quickly and now," she said.

Ashton said she would tell Netanyahu that "he's in a unique position, he has a high rating in Israel, and it's not always the case, and there has been over the past month relative calm." She said the Israeli premier should seize the opportunity to take his people to "the possibility of a long term calm and prosperity.

"And that can only be done by reaching a settlement," she added.

Spain, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, shared her concern.

"Until now, it's not too late, but if we wait for more than two years it will be too late," Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said, warning that there would be no more land left to negotiate and that it would be extremely difficult to fix borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.

He also warned that "the Palestinian moderate leadership would not be able to maintain themselves as a peaceful partner, so the time is for urgency, for moving forward."

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt decried the announcement saying the Israeli "government says that they are interested in restarting the peace negotiations but the signal that was sent the other day with the expansion in East Jerusalem" was not good.

Bildt said it "sent of course a decidedly bad signal and now it's now up to the Israeli government to really prove that they want the peace."

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said: "In the long run it takes two to tango. A dialogue with Hamas in the long run will be necessary"

Ashton will visit Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories and give a platform speech in Egypt, before attending a meeting of the Middle East Quartet in Moscow.

"My visit is a sign of the importance the EU attaches to broad and deep relations with our Mediterranean partners and the Arab world," Ashton said in a statement released on Friday.

Citing "a sense of urgency" in the "need to make progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict, she said she would be taking "a clear message" that dialogue seeking peace must not grind to another halt.

Israel said on Monday that it had authorised a visit to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip enclave through its territory by United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon and Ashton.

However, Ashton said in announcing her March 14-18 trip that she was now only "hopeful" of visiting Gaza.

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