Sunday, April 1

Abbas presses Merkel to help end crippling Western embargo

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday that the time had come to end a year-old economic embargo against the Palestinian government. "There is no justification to maintain it at all ... Otherwise it will be understood that this is a deliberate siege against the Palestinian people," Abbas said after meeting Merkel in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Merkel, whose country is the current holder of the European Union's rotating presidency, is trying to build on momentum for renewed peace talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after Arab states revived their 2002 peace offer to the Jewish state.

During her visit, Merkel did not meet any ministers from the Palestinian unity government. The government, led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya's Hamas, also includes members of Abbas's Fatah faction and independents.

Arab leaders have revived a five-year-old peace plan that offers Israel normal ties with Arab countries in return for full withdrawal from land seized in a 1967 war, creation of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" for Palestinians displaced in 1948 with Israel's creation.

Merkel welcomed the results of the summit and said Europe should build on it and revive diplomatic efforts by the "Quartet" of Middle East power brokers, which is comprised of the European Union, the United States, the United Nations and Russia.

"We all have the feeling that things are moving. We have a window of opportunity," Merkel said earlier at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she received an honorary doctorate. "There is a major chance here which we must grasp."

She also called on Abbas to help secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Gaza militants in a raid into Israel in June.

Merkel met Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni before touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.

She planned to meet Olmert again on Sunday night.

"Israel is at a critical crossroads," Olmert said in Jerusalem. "We are in a process of confronting significant threats on the one hand and opportunities to advance the diplomatic process with Arab countries on the other."

During a visit to Jordan on Saturday, Merkel urged the Palestinian unity government to embrace the demands of the Quartet to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by existing interim peace accords.

The unity government's program contains a promise to "respect" previous Israeli-Palestinian pacts. It does not call for recognizing Israel and says resistance against the Jewish state in "all its forms" is a legitimate Palestinian right.

Diplomats said Sunday that the United States and Egypt are urging Israel to agree to quickly start talks with a committee of Arab states on how to move the peace process forward.

In weekend talks with Livni and other officials, Washington and Cairo proposed that Israel agree to meet "as soon as possible" with a working group approved at the Arab summit to begin negotiating the details of a possible agreement.

Several Arab League countries would talk "formally and publicly as a collective" with Israel, a senior diplomat said of the proposal, calling it unprecedented in its potential scope.

"The ball has passed from the Arab side to Israel's side and there is a need now to respond," Israel's military intelligence chief, Major General Amos Yadlin, was quoted by a senior government official as telling the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday.

US and Egyptian diplomats were not immediately available to comment.

Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad made an impassioned appeal on Sunday for an end to bruising sanctions against the Palestinian government.

Fayyad, an internationally respected economist who supports a peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, issued his call in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times.

"We do not aspire to be a beggar nation, dependent on the world to feed our people. We have the capacity, education and talent to build a thriving economy and a strong democracy ... The sanctions must be lifted," Fayyad said.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr arrived in Paris on Sunday on his first visit to a European capital since the unity cabinet was sworn in last month.

Abu Amr was due to hold talks on Monday with French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, a Palestinian source said. He meets with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on Tuesday. The visit will provide an opportunity to discuss "how we can resume our direct financial aid" to the Palestinian government, Foreign Ministry spokesman Denis Simonneau said.

France has said it would resume contacts with Palestinian government members not belonging to Hamas and has called for a resumption of European aid to the Palestinians. Abu Amr is an independent.

In other developments, the Israeli Army sealed off the West Bank early Sunday ahead of the weeklong Passover holiday, restricting the movement of Palestinians into Israel.

Palestinians will not be able to enter Israel until the end of the holiday, which begins Monday, according to an army announcement, though exceptions will be made for humanitarian cases and for Palestinian Christians visiting family inside Israel for Easter, the army said.