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Steinmeier calls for courage in Mideast peace talks

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said he is optimistic about Middle East peace talks bearing fruit. The Social Democrat is on his first trip to the region since reclaiming his old cabinet post.

Germany's returning foreign minister on Monday appealed for courage from leaders in both Jerusalem and Ramallah, saying he saw a better chance than ever for the so-called two-state solution to become "a reality, at last."

"This time, the chances seem better than was the case in the past," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. "We have high hopes that this time it will be possible to lay the foundations for a two-state solution."

At an evening appointment in Ramallah, the German foreign minister said he was happy to hear from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that lead negotiator and US Secretary of State John Kerry, "does not just listen carefully, but also seeks ways and means to turn good suggestions into agreements."

Settlement plans 'damaging'

Steinmeier met with Kerry in Paris on his way to the region, receiving a briefing on the state of the talks. He said that both sides would have to be willing to compromise in order to reach a final deal, pledging pressure to this end from either side of the Atlantic, saying that the Palestinians would also have to "pull entirely in the right direction."

"At the same time it's clear that the ongoing Israeli settlement building is damaging the process," Steinmeier said, a reference to new Israeli government tenders for some 1,400 new settler homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, announced on Friday.

Sharon memorial changes schedule

Steinmeier is no stranger to sometimes arduous mediation in the Middle East, having served as German foreign minister from 2005 to 2009.

Israel Deutschland Außenminister Frank-Walter Steinmeier zu Beerdigung von Ariel Scharon in Jerusalem

Steinmeier attended Sharon's memorial

The Social Democrat's first day back in the region after four years in opposition was broadly rescheduled as Israel took time to honor former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday. Instead of a scheduled meeting in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, Steinmeier held a short discussion with the current Israeli premier on the sidelines of Sharon's memorial ceremony on Monday.

Steinmeier was less specific on the settlement issue during his meeting with Netanyahu, although he urged the prime minister to refrain from anything "which could still disturb this process."

While Steinmeier still met his opposite number, dining with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman late on Monday, a planned joint press conference was canceled. The current round of Middle East peace process talks restarted last July, John Kerry has made 10 visits to the region since. When agreeing to the talks last summer, both sides set April this year as the deadline to reach a "framework" for a future peace deal.

USVice President Joe Biden, one of the dignitaries from more than 20 countries to visit Sharon's memorial on Monday, also voiced his hope that a deal could be reached, albeit acknowledging "there are going to be very difficult decisions" for both sides to make.

msh/slk (AFP, AP, dpa)

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