EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday as a row erupted over a controversial Israeli plan to stop Palestinians using the same buses as settlers.
She met the Palestinian leader at his West Bank headquarters at the start of a 24-hour visit to the region on her first trip to the region since a new right-wing Israeli new government was sworn in last week.
Mogherini’s aim is to discuss bilateral relations “as well as prospects for the Middle East peace process,” her office said ahead of the trip.
The move looks likely to complicate Israel’s already damaged relationship with the Palestinians and further strain ties with the international community.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the suspension of a controversial move that would prevent Palestinians from riding the same buses as Jewish settlers when returning from Israel to the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s decision came just hours after the launch of the three-month pilot project by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Adding to tensions, on Wednesday morning a Palestinian driver rammed his car into two border policewomen in East Jerusalem, moderately injuring them, before he was shot dead by another officer.
Later on Wednesday, Mogherini was to travel to Jerusalem for dinner with Netanyahu, then meet President Reuven Rivlin and opposition leader Isaac Herzog on Thursday.
A European diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mogherini’s aim was to sound out both sides on the prospects of reviving peace talks which collapsed in April 2014.
“She’s coming to talk to Netanyahu after the formation of the new government to see what can be done in terms of the resumption of negotiations,” he said.
“This is just the beginning. She wants to test the ground after the formation of the new Israeli government to see what the Europeans can do.
“She wants to see what can be done.”
During her talks with Abbas, she was expected to raise the issue of the intra-Palestinian unity deal between his Fatah movement and the rival Hamas, whose stronghold is in Gaza.
The accord was signed in April 2014 but has largely run aground.
“The bottom line is there are no big expectations,” the European source said, noting that her visit was taking place just ahead of next week’s meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels at which she would brief them on her trip.
Earlier in the day, Mogherini met with deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely, who is serving as Israel’s de-facto top diplomat.
Hotovely told Mogherini the new Netanyahu government was committed to pursuing a peace agreement, and blamed Ramallah for stagnating talks.
“The Palestinians abandoned the negotiating table a year and a half ago, leaving the proposal of [American Secretary of State John] Kerry unanswered. In order for the peace process to happen, Israel’s message to Ramallah is that the Palestinians must come back to the negotiating table and not take unilateral measures,” she said, according to a statement from her office.
Hotovely also called on the EU to support Israel’s demand that Ramallah recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and to “condemn terrorism unequivocally,” hours after an East Jerusalem man rammed his car into police in a suspected attack.
Mogherini took over as foreign policy chief for the 28-nation European Union in November and visited Israel and the Palestinian territories shortly afterwards, saying she wanted to make a priority of pushing forward the Middle East peace process.
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