Israel’s ongoing settlement construction is damaging efforts to reach a negotiated peace agreement, visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Monday.
Berlin’s top diplomat was in Israel for a 24-hour visit to discuss the peace process which was largely overshadowed by the death at the weekend of Israel’s controversial former prime minister Ariel Sharon who was laid to rest on Monday.
He met with Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni early on Monday then attended both a state memorial service and Sharon’s funeral before travelling to Ramallah for an evening meeting with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
“It is clear that the continued building of settlements really hurts the process,” he told reporters before his meeting with Livni, while stressing that Berlin also expected the Palestinians “to do their part”.
Speaking to reporters after his talks with Abbas, Steinmeier said the ongoing direct peace talks, which were launched in late July, should not be “disrupted” by new settlement announcements.
Just last week, Israel unveiled plans to build another 1,800 new settler homes in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, sparking sharp criticism from Washington and Brussels.
But the German diplomat dodged a question on possible European Union sanctions against Israel, saying only that he would discuss the matter of settlements with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman when they met later on Monday.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Ramallah was “doing everything possible” to make the peace process a success and urged European pressure on Israel over the settlements.
“We asked for Germany and the European Union to take action to end the Israeli settlement policy, which is sabotaging the peace process,” he said, his remarks relayed through a translator.
Despite Israel’s latest settlement announcement, Steinmeier expressed optimism over the ongoing direct negotiations which have been championed by US Secretary of State John Kerry, saying the peace process was at “a quite decisive phase”.
“The chances seem to be better this time than before,” he said earlier.
Germany’s steadfast support of Israel has been a constant since World War II in atonement for its Nazi past, and Berlin is widely seen as Israel’s closest ally in Europe.
But it has recently upped pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to show greater restraint over construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state as Washington presses the nine-month peace initiative.
After Ramallah, Steinmeier travelled to Jerusalem for dinner with Lieberman after which he was due to fly back to Germany, officials said.
Next month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will fly to Israel at Netanyahu’s invitation for talks and a joint session of their two governments.
Steinmeier served as Germany’s top diplomat from 2005-2009, during Merkel’s first term.