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    Angela Merkel sets off to Middle East

    Berlin, March 31 (AP): German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has made the Middle East a top priority of her six-month EU presidency, set off Saturday on a visit to the region to add Europe's push to growing diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and U.N. _ and what are seen as hopeful signs from an Arab summit.

    Her trip will include talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meetings that will come close on the heels of Thursday's Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The meeting called for Israel to accept a revived peace plan.

    Merkel's first stop is in Jordan, where she will see Jordan's King Abdullah _ one of the strongest supporters of the Arab plan.

    German officials called the recent Arab statements a sign of new momentum in the intractable Israeli-Palestinian dispute after swings through the region by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

    Foreign Ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner said Friday that the summit had sent ``a positive signal, which we welcome'' amid the recent flurry of diplomatic efforts.

    ``The German government and the EU will support this process to the best of our ability,'' Ploetner said. ``We want to pick up these threads and bring them together.''

    The Arab summit called on Israel to accept a land-for-peace plan that would mean recognition and peace with Arab countries in return for withdrawal to borders from before the 1967 Middle East war. The plan also calls for a ``just solution'' for Palestinian refugees and a Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem.

    The process is still fraught with risks of setback. Israel rejects a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and it strongly opposes any return of Palestinian refugees to the Jewish state.

    Merkel began her EU presidency in January by pushing to reconvene meetings of the Quartet _ the EU, U.N., U.S. and Russia _ and urged the United States, Israel's key ally, to increase its involvement.

    She has also been pressing Abbas for compliance with the Quartet's demands that the new Palestinian government recognize Israel, acknowledge earlier peace deals and give up violence. That has been a tall order given the participation in the new government of the militant Hamas movement along with Abbas' Fatah faction.

    Merkel showed Abbas no wiggle room on those issues during his recent visit to Berlin.

    She is also to underline Germany's close relationship with Israel, whose security remains a pillar of Berlin's foreign policy due to the country's role as the perpetrator of the Holocaust during World War II. Hebrew University is to present the former physics researcher with an honorary degree on Sunday.

    She will also meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora on Monday in Beirut before returning to Germany, and will visit a German warship that is helping to secure Lebanon's coast under a U.N. peacekeeping mandate following last summer's war in south Lebanon between Israel and the militant Islamic Hezbollah group.

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