BERLIN, (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas on Friday to help secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as a first step towards resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Speaking after a meeting with the Palestinian leader, Merkel said Shalit’s release could lead to a prisoner exchange between the Israelis and Palestinians and further steps aimed at building confidence between the two sides.
Germany has vowed to use its presidencies of the European Union and Group of Eight nations this year to reinject life into the Middle East peace process through the quartet of mediators, which groups the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations. “We discussed that it would be important that the soldier Shalit be released from imprisonment in order that a process of prisoner exchange could occur,” Merkel told a joint news conference with Abbas.
Merkel added rocket attacks on Israel must end and that the Palestinians should make efforts to reduce weapons smuggling. Abbas agreed with Merkel’s calls but added that the release of Shalit, captured in June 2006, should be tied to the release of Palestinian prisoners by the Israelis. “I stress that Shalit should be freed and the question of missiles should be solved,” he told reporters. “The calming of tensions between us and the Israelis must be comprehensive and, similarly, the smuggling of weapons must be ended.”
“On the other hand, there are over 10,000 Palestinian prisoners,” he added. “We call for their freedom. We cannot say ‘Freedom for Shalit’ without saying ‘Freedom for the Palestinian prisoners’. That is clear.”
Quartet representatives met in Germany earlier this week for talks on how to revive the peace process in the wake of a Palestinian deal to form a new unity government that includes Abbas’s Fatah party and the Islamist Hamas. However, a decision on how to handle the new authority was delayed amid divisions between the United States and Russia on an aid embargo imposed on the Palestinians last year when Hamas, which Washington classifies as a terrorist group, came to power.