JERUSALEM – In her first Mideast trip as EU president, German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered Europe's help in bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, trying to build on a new burst of international efforts to restart peace talks.
Merkel also called on Iran to immediately release 15 British sailors and marines seized in the Gulf on March 23. "Britain has the full solidarity of the European Union," Merkel said in a speech at Hebrew University. "We demand the immediate release of the 15 British soldiers."
Merkel, who was meeting Israeli and Palestinian leaders Sunday, said the Europeans are ready to offer support, but ultimately the sides must resolve their differences themselves.
"The Europeans must not assume that they could force a solution. We can't and I don't want to do it," she said in her speech. "Within my abilities, I would like to support the sides to walk the path toward peace."
Her visit came after the Arab world renewed a land-for-recognition offer to Israel last week. Since then, the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — has said it hopes to arrange a meeting with moderate Arab states, Israel and the Palestinians before the summer. Merkel, who now holds the rotating EU presidency, plays an important Quartet role.
However, several obstacles are blocking progress.
Much of the world is still reluctant to deal with the new Palestinian unity government, a coalition of the Islamic militant Hamas and the Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, because it has failed to explicitly recognize Israel or renounce violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he will not talk to Abbas about any of the ingredients of a final peace deal, such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, until Palestinian militants halt rocket fire from Gaza and release an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for nine months.
Olmert, while praising the Arabs' readiness to offer recognition, has been cool to the price Israel is asked to pay for it — a withdrawal from the lands it captured in the 1967 Mideast War, including the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, and recognition of the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees. Israel has said that while willing to give up lands, it won't return to the 1967 borders. It flatly rejects the return of refugees.
In a visit last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrested a promise from Olmert and Abbas to meet biweekly. Merkel is expected to ask the two leaders to make good use of these conversations — no date has been set for the first round — but her aides said she is not carrying a concrete action plan.
The chancellor arrived in Jerusalem on Saturday evening and held informal talks with Olmert.
Israel and Germany have close relations. Germany has long considered guaranteeing Israel's security to be a pillar of its foreign policy following the Holocaust.
Sunday's stops included breakfast with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.
Merkel spent about half an hour at the Holocaust memorial, visiting the Hall of Remembrance and laying a wreath decorated with ribbons bearing the German flag. Before leaving, she wrote in the memorial's guest book: "Humanity grows out of responsibility for the past."
Later, Merkel went to the Hebrew University where the former physics researcher received an honorary doctorate.
"We admire your steadfast friendship with the Jewish people," university President Menachem Magidor said. As Merkel stood on a red carpet, a large blue ribbon was placed on her shoulders.
In the afternoon, she was to meet with Abbas at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, followed by more talks with Olmert in Jerusalem in the evening.
In Ramallah, Merkel was expected to meet only with Abbas and to avoid Palestinian Cabinet ministers, even those who are not Hamas members, her aides said.
The EU foreign ministers decided Saturday, in a meeting in Germany, to start dealing with non-Hamas members of the Palestinian government. In continuing to shun the entire Palestinian Cabinet during this trip, Merkel apparently was trying to avoid angering her Israeli hosts. With the EU decision, Israel is increasingly alone in its call for a total boycott of the Palestinian government.
Abbas will ask Merkel to deal with all members of his government and to pressure Israel to resume peace talks, said his information minister, Mustafa Barghouti.
Abbas' aides contend that the government cannot be ignored because it represents the vast majority of the Palestinian people. They also note that the government calls for establishing a state in territories Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast War, implying recognition of Israel, and that it seeks to consolidate a truce.
Yet Abbas has been unable to stop rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli border towns. And his assurances to Israel and Germany that the Israeli soldier would be freed soon, as part of a prisoner swap, never materialized.