German FM in Israel to voice EU 'concern' over annexation plan

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German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is the first foreign dignitary to visit Israel since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a joint government with his election rival Benny Gantz on May 17

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas travelled to Jerusalem on Wednesday where he was set to voice European "concern" over Israel's controversial annexation plans in the occupied West Bank.

Maas, the first high-level European visitor to touch down in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic hit, on arrival touched elbows with his Israeli counterpart, both wearing face masks.

The focal point of talks will be Israel's proposed annexation of West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley, with initial steps slated to begin from July 1, the same day Germany takes the rotating EU presidency.

The European Union opposes the move although it remains divided on how to react, with Maas's visit seen as an opportunity by Israel to tone down the bloc's response.

The German foreign ministry said on its website that "in the Middle East conflict, Germany and its European Union partners are committed to the resumption of negotiations and a two-state solution.

"In Israel, Foreign Minister Maas will also express European concern about the possible consequences of annexation, as announced by the Israeli government."

Germany's top diplomat held talks with his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi before meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

Israeli annexation forms part of a US peace plan unveiled in January, which paves the way for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

But it excludes core Palestinian demands such as a capital in east Jerusalem and has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians have sent a counter-proposal for the creation of a "sovereign Palestinian state, independent and demilitarised" to the Quartet, made up of the UN, US, EU and Russia, Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said Tuesday.

"We want Israel to feel international pressure," Shtayyeh said.

Maas is due to travel on to Jordan, from where he will hold a video conference with Shtayyeh and meet with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi.

Last month Jordan's King Abdullah II warned that Israeli annexation risked sparking a "conflict" with his country, speaking to German magazine Der Spiegel.

- EU weighs response -

While Berlin shares Amman's opposition to annexation, the EU is yet to outline retaliatory measures and sanctions would need the approval of all 27 member states.

Europe holds significant financial clout in Israel as the country's top business partner, with trade totalling 30 billion euros ($34 billion) last year, according to EU figures.

Some European countries could formally recognise a Palestinian state but, according to an Israeli official, Germany would not be one of them.

"Germany even with annexation would not recognise a Palestinian state and is not going to support sanctions against Israel," he told AFP.

Looking beyond the West Bank, other matters on Maas's Jerusalem agenda include Israeli foe Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Berlin was one of the European parties to a landmark 2015 accord with Iran to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

But US President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the deal and reimpose crippling economic penalties -- a move praised by Israel -- has led Tehran to suspend its compliance with some of the curbs.

Germany won praise from Israel in April for announcing a ban on all Hezbollah activities after previously tolerating the militant group's political wing.

Israel occupied a swathe of southern Lebanon from 1978 to 2000 and went on to fight a war with Hezbollah in 2006.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is the first foreign dignitary to visit Israel since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a joint government with his election rival Benny Gantz on May 17

A mural painting of US President Donald Trump on Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem

Israel's Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (R) greets his German counterpart Heiko Maas with an "elbow bump" in Jerusalem

Protesters gather in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on June 6 to denounce Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank

Israel under Prime Ministter Benjamin Netanyahu could take initial steps to annex its West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley as soon as July 1, the same day Germany takes on the rotating European Union presidency