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Merkel urges Mideast to seize chance for peace

Merkel urges Mideast to seize chance for peace

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(RAMALLAH) - EU president German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders not to miss a rare opportunity to revive their stalled peace process.

In meetings with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, Merkel said the Middle East had to capitalise on momentum following the Arab revival of a five-year-old peace plan at a Riyadh summit last week.

"We are going through a period where we feel that things are moving," Merkel said in a speech at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she received an honorary doctorate.

"There is a window of opportunity... There is a real chance of reaching a breakthrough and we must grasp it," she said, according to a translation of her remarks in German.

In talks with Abbas, the German chancellor called on the two-week-old Palestinian unity government led by the radical Hamas movement to explicitly renounce violence, recognise Israel and agree to abide by past peace deals -- conditions the West has imposed for resuming direct aid to the cabinet.

Merkel also urged the new government to secure the release of an Israeli soldier seized nine months ago by Gaza-based militants, including the armed wing of Hamas -- a major stumbling block in Israeli-Palestinian ties.

But Abbas said that the political programme of the unity cabinet, formed last month from the Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah, had already met the conditions.

"We told the chancellor that this government's programme meets the international community's demands to end the siege imposed on us," Abbas told a joint press conference with Merkel in Ramallah.

Merkel however disagreed. She said the European Union would not have contacts with government ministers who refuse to renounce violence and recognise Israel.

"Some of the government ministers do not accept our criteria," Merkel said.

Prime minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas said when unveiling the new cabinet on March 17 that it would work to establish a state in the occupied territories and respect past peace deals, but reaffirmed the Palestinians' right to resistance in all its forms against Israeli occupation.

Abbas said the Palestinians were "waiting for a positive response from the Israeli government that could help Arab efforts to relaunch the peace process," but said that the Arab peace blueprint would remain unchanged.

The Arab proposal offers Israel peace and normal ties if it withdraws from all land seized in the 1967 Middle East war, and allows for the creation of a Palestinian state and the return of Palestinian refugees.

Israel has not endorsed the blueprint as is, saying negotiations were needed.

Receiving the German chancellor at an official ceremony in Jerusalem earlier, Olmert said he hoped mediators "will be able to help us and our neighbours to reach a breakthrough while taking into consideration maximum sensitivity to security issues."

The Jewish state is "at a critical crossroad of important decisions regarding its future and its existence... We are facing considerable threats and opportunities to move forward in the peace process with Arab states."

Merkel was to meet Olmert for a third time later on Sunday, following two meetings after arriving in Israel from Jordan the previous day.

The talks between Merkel and Olmert were likely to be strained by the EU's official decision on Saturday to deal with non-Hamas members of the Palestinian unity government.

Israel has refused to deal with the government led by Hamas, which it and the West consider a terror group, and has urged the Middle East Quartet -- the EU, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- to do the same.

"Israel continues to say clearly that the new Palestinian government headed by (Hamas premier) Ismail Haniya openly supports terror, funds terror and we have stated clearly that all members of this governement... should not be recognised," government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

The Quartet imposed a diplomatic and direct aid embargo on the Palestinian government last year after Hamas won democratic elections and formed a cabinet alone.

The EU -- the largest donor of aid to the Palestinians -- has eased the diplomatic freeze on the coalition cabinet, meeting with non-Hamas ministers, but has not lifted the embargo on direct aid to the government.

Merkel is due to wind up her visit to the region in Lebanon.

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