German FM voices 'serious concerns' over Israeli annexation plan


Jerusalem (AFP)

Germany and its European partners have "serious concerns" over Israel's plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in Jerusalem Wednesday.

The first high-level European visitor to touch down in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic hit, Maas brought a message of disquiet from Berlin and elsewhere in the EU.

Speaking in Jerusalem, he expressed "our honest and serious concerns... about the possible consequences of such a step".

Israel intends to annex 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.

"Together with the European Union, we believe that annexation would not be compatible with international law," said Maas, following talks with his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi.

The EU instead supports the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian talks to negotiate a two-state solution, the German foreign minister said.

The bloc is yet to agree on how to react if Israel presses ahead with annexation, and Maas's visit had been seen by Israel as an opportunity to tone down the European response.

Following talks with Ashkenazi, Germany's top diplomat will meet 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.