Heiko Mass
Heiko Mass Reuters

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas will travel to Jerusalem on Wednesday, with Israel intent on toning down Europe's reaction to its plans to apply its sovereignty in parts of Judea and Samaria.

Maas is the first foreign dignitary to visit since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu formed a coalition government with his election rival Benny Gantz, although US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had visited just days before the May 17 swearing-in.

Israel could take initial steps to apply its sovereignty in Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley as soon as July 1, the same day Germany takes the rotating European Union presidency.

The EU opposes the move, which forms part of a US peace initiative, and argues it would contravene international law.

The Washington plan unveiled in January paves the way for the eventual creation of a Palestinian Arab state -- but it has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority.

The PA sent a counter-proposal for the creation of a "sovereign Palestinian state, independent and demilitarized" to the Quartet, made up of the UN, US, EU and Russia, PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said Tuesday.

"We want Israel to feel international pressure," Shtayyeh said.

While Israeli officials are unlikely to change Europe's opposition, they see Maas's visit as a chance to at least soften its response.

Europe is Israel's top business partner with trade totaling 30 billion euros ($34 billion) last year, according to EU figures.

"It is the first visit since this new government is established," said Avi Nir, head of the Israeli foreign ministry's European section.

"It is a symbol of the strong and the unique relation that Israel and Germany are having, a symbol of the personal friendship of Heiko Maas towards Israel," he told AFP in English.

While the EU's view on the application of sovereignty is well-known, the bloc has not announced retaliatory measures against Israel. Sanctions would need the approval of all 27 member states.

"Such a decision cannot be without a response," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

Some European countries could formally recognize a Palestinian Arab state but, according to an Israeli official, Germany would not be one of them.

"Germany even with annexation would not recognize a Palestinian state and is not going to support sanctions against Israel," he told AFP.

Maas's Jerusalem trip is his first outside Europe since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and will see him meet his new Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi.

He will then hold talks with Netanyahu and Defence Minister Gantz before travelling on to neighboring Jordan.

The German diplomat will skip a trip to the city of Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, due to a lack of time and coronavirus measures, Berlin says.

Maas will instead hold a video conference with Shtayyeh from the Jordanian capital Amman, where he will meet the country's foreign minister Ayman Safadi.

Looking beyond Judea and Samria, other matters on Maas's Jerusalem agenda
include Israeli foe Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Along with Paris and London, 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.

The UN nuclear watchdog says Iran has gone beyond the limits for enriched uranium set under the accord and has blocked visits to some sites where past research is believed to have taken place, prompting Netanyahu to call on world powers to impose "crippling sanctions".

But Iran has kept all of its current nuclear sites under UN supervision, something welcomed by the remaining parties to the deal, including Germany.

Germany won praise from Israel in April for announcing a ban on all Hezbollah activities after previously tolerating the militant group's political wing.

Israeli officials blame Paris for blocking EU resolutions against Hezbollah, pushing European countries such as Germany to take unilateral measures.

With Lebanon now facing a severe economic crisis, Israeli sources say they are hoping any foreign financial aid will be tied to reforms which would reduce Hezbollah's influence.

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