UN chief Guterres to visit Israel, Palestine

#Diplomacy

Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders praise Guterres, calling forthcoming visit 'great opportunity' and 'very important'

UN chief will hold talks with Israeli leaders, travel to Ramallah to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and on to Gaza Strip (Reuters)
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Friday 4 August 2017 7:26 UTC
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will pay his first visit since taking the UN helm to Israel and the Palestinian territories, including the Gaza Strip, at the end of the month, diplomats said on Thursday.

The UN chief will hold talks with Israeli leaders, travel to Ramallah to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and to the Gaza Strip, where the United Nations runs a major Palestinian aid programme, during the three-day visit beginning on 28 August.

Israel's UN Ambassador Danny Danon said the visit will allow Guterres to "build a relationship" with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will also hold meetings with the Israeli president and defence minister.

"We are very happy about this visit," Danon told AFP. 

"It's a great opportunity for the secretary general to experience Israel, to meet the leaders of Israel and to understand the challenges that Israel faces day-in and day-out."

Palestinian ambassador Riyad Mansour described the upcoming visit as "very important," indicating that it signalled a stronger UN focus on the plight of Palestinians.

"The UN has been involved since its inception with the question of Palestine and will remain involved until the question is resolved in all its aspects on the basis of international law," he told AFP by email.

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The visit comes as diplomatic efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks appear deadlocked.

Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, "is experienced. He has been to Israel in the past. He knows the complexity of the issues. He is not someone who comes to our region and has no clue about what is happening," said Danon. 

The Israeli government will discuss strengthening the mission of the UN interim force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), said Danon, after a series of skirmishes along the UN-monitored demarcation line between Israel and Lebanon.

Relations between the UN and Israel have been tense over the expansion of Jewish settlements, which the world body has condemned as illegal.

Since taking over from Ban Ki-moon on 1 January, Guterres has been cautious in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partly in response to US accusations that the United Nations was biased against Israel.

In March, the UN chief demanded that a report by a UN body be withdrawn after it accused Israel of imposing an apartheid system on the Palestinians.

One of the authors of the report, Richard Falk, wrote in a Middle East Eye op-ed in March that there was a fierce campaign to detract the report by labelling it as “despicable” and “a blatant lie”.

“It should be clear from these statements, and there are many others, that an investigation of apartheid in the Israel context is not something outrageous, or even particularly new,” Falk wrote.

Guterres had initially distanced himself from the report, but the United States insisted that it be withdrawn altogether. 

During the most recent flareup of violence in Jerusalem, Guterres called for de-escalation and respect for the status quo at holy sites after Israel installed metal detectors at the Haram al-Sharif mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.