EU's Ashton to nudge Israel, Palestinians, toward talks

EU's Ashton to nudge Israel, Palestinians, toward talks

The European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton began a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Tuesday, hoping to push Israelis and Palestinians to continue peace talks begun this month in Jordan, DPA reported.

Ashton arrived in the region less than two days before the expiry on January 26 of a deadline for the talks to produce results. She held talks with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

"I'll be looking for positive signs from both sides that they are prepared to turn this progress into real gestures and negotiations," she said in a statement before leaving Brussels. "Time is of the essence."

Israeli and Palestinian envoys have over the past three weeks held a series of face-to-face talks in Amman, their first in over 15 months.

The Palestinians have said they will quit the talks after January 26, if Israel continues settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They have also urged Israel to free more Palestinian prisoners.

Ashton is scheduled to meet Israeli officials in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on Tuesday, before making the short journey to the West Bank city of Ramallah for dinner with acting Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, EU spokesman David Kriss told dpa.

She will also hold a closed meeting with Tony Blair, the envoy of the Quartet of international mediators - the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia - which have been trying to restart the negotiations.

Ashton is scheduled to travel to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to meet civil society groups. She will not meet officials from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the coastal enclave.

She meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday and may also meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman on Thursday.

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