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Ashton in Israel, West Bank talks

JERUSALEM, Feb 15 – The European Union\’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton was on Tuesday meeting top Israeli and Palestinian officials on a one-day visit aimed at galvanising both sides into restarting peace talks.

Ashton, who arrived overnight, met her Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman ahead of a whirlwind visit to the West Bank town of Ramallah where she was to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and premier Salam Fayyad.

She was to return to Jerusalem for evening talks with Israel\’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

The visit is part of a broader Middle East tour which comes in the context of two massive popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia which have shaken up the region and prompted a shift in its strategic balance.

It also comes 10 days after a meeting of top diplomats from the Middle East peace Quartet, which groups the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations.

"The main focus of her visit is to follow up on the Quartet\’s meeting earlier this month and ahead of another meeting in March. The aim is to create momentum and movement in the peace process," said Shadi Othman, the EU\’s Ramallah-based spokesman.

The EU said Ashton would debrief the parties on the Quartet meeting in Munich, Germany "and outline the next steps agreed during the meeting, notably the upcoming meeting of Quartet envoys with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Brussels."

At the Munich talks, the Quartet peacemakers called on all parties "to undertake urgently efforts to expedite Israeli-Palestinian" peace, saying it was imperative due to the political turmoil in the region.

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The peacemaking diplomats are to meet again at an unspecified date in March, before which their envoys are expected to hold separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Brussels.

However, Ashton\’s visit comes just a day after Fayyad and his government submitted their resignations to Abbas, who reappointed Fayyad and asked him to form a new cabinet.

And Saeb Erakat on Saturday resigned as chief Palestinian negotiator, while the Palestinians have decided to close the Negotiations Support Unit after thousands of confidential documents on peace talks with Israel were leaked to Al-Jazeera and the London Guardian.

The impact on the planned talks in Brussels was not immediately clear.


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