Iran General NewsOlmert, Merkel hold talks on Gaza and Iran

Olmert, Merkel hold talks on Gaza and Iran

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Reuters: German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday to discuss the Jewish state’s conflict with Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip and Iran’s nuclear programme, Israeli officials said. By Jeffrey Heller

BERLIN, Feb 11 (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday to discuss the Jewish state’s conflict with Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip and Iran’s nuclear programme, Israeli officials said.

An Israeli official said before the meeting that Merkel was “very curious” about the situation along the Gaza border, where violence threatens to complicate Palestinian statehood talks that resumed after the Annapolis peace conference in November.

Public pressure has been mounting in Israel for Olmert to order a wide scale military operation against Hamas to curb cross-border rocket fire that has been disrupting life in towns and communities along the frontier.

While Olmert toured Berlin’s Jewish Museum, pausing to tell reporters that Israel was “at war” with Hamas, residents of the southern Israeli town of Sderot disrupted traffic in Tel Aviv to protest against his government’s failure to end the launchings.

A senior Israeli official declined to comment on whether Olmert would lobby Merkel to support stronger Israeli military action in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million Palestinians live in densely populated areas.

Israel’s recent tightening of a Gaza blockade and cutback in fuel supplies, part of a declared bid to pressure militants to stop firing rockets, has drawn international criticism and raised fears of a humanitarian crisis in the territory.

Hamas, which violently wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group in June, has called the rocket attacks retaliation for Israeli raids in the area and in the occupied West Bank.

“HISTORICAL RESPONSIBILITY”

In an interview due to be published on Tuesday in Berlin’s B.Z. daily, Merkel spoke of “the difficult conditions” under which Olmert and Abbas are negotiating.

In an indirect reference to the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany in World War Two, Merkel said her country had a “special historical responsibility” towards Israel.

Olmert and Merkel met at a state guest house outside Berlin and planned to hold further talks on Tuesday at Merkel’s Berlin office before Olmert returns home later in the day.

Israeli officials said Olmert intended to press for stronger international pressure on Iran at the United Nations, where a new sanctions resolution has been drafted, and among countries with economic interests in the Islamic Republic.

In a sign Germany is raising pressure on Tehran, it said on Tuesday the government had halved new export credit guarantees for trade with Iran last year to 503.4 million euros ($732.7 million). Germany has traditionally been among the top exporters to Iran, sending 4.1 billion of euros of goods there in 2006.

Iran says it wants nuclear energy only for electricity, so it can export more oil. But it is under sanctions for hiding the program until 2003, preventing U.N. inspectors since then from verifying it is wholly peaceful and refusing to suspend it.

Olmert said last month Israel will not be reconciled to a nuclear Iran and “all options are on the table”. Israel is widely believed to have built atomic weapons of its own. (Additional reporting by Berlin bureau, Editing by Michael Winfrey)

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