British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meets with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 8, 2017
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meets with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 8, 2017 © ABBAS MOMANI - AFP
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meets with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 8, 2017
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Britain's Boris Johnson visits Israel, Palestinian territories

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparred over the issue of settlements on Wednesday as he visited for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

In brief comments as he met Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Johnson touched on Israeli settlement building in Palestinian territory and stressed his government remained committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Israel has first and foremost an absolute right to live in security, and the people of Israel deserve to be safe from terrorism," Johnson said, stressing Britain's "rock-like" support of the country.

But he later added: "Of course we must also try to remove obstacles to peace and progress such as the settlements, which you and I have discussed before."

While the two men clearly seemed friendly, Netanyahu later said: "It's evident that we agree on most things but not on all things.

"The reason we haven't had peace here for a hundred years is not the settlements, but the persistent refusal to recognise a nation state for the Jewish people in any boundary."

The Palestine Liberation Organisation has long recognised Israel, but it believes doing so as a Jewish state would preempt negotiations on the right of return of Palestinian refugees across the region.

Johnson's meeting with Netanyahu came after discussions in the West Bank town of Ramallah earlier in the day with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and foreign minister Riyad al-Malki.

He also stressed his government's commitment to a two-state solution while speaking to reporters in the Palestinian political capital.

His comments came with US President Donald Trump casting uncertainty over the West's long efforts to foster a two-state solution.

Trump backed away from the US commitment to a two-state solution when he met Netanyahu at the White House in February, saying he would be open to a single state if it led to peace.

However, Johnson said he believed the new administration in Washington represented an "opportunity".

"There is a willingness to look at things with fresh eyes, and what it will require is leadership on both sides -- leadership and vision and courage," he said.

Johnson also received a briefing from anti-settlement NGO Peace Now on Israeli settlement building, a British embassy official said on condition of anonymity.

Israeli settler leaders had called for Johnson to meet with them as well, but the official said the brief visit allowed no time to do so.

- First working visit -

The one-day trip was Johnson's first working visit since taking over as foreign minister in July.

He met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, whose role is mainly ceremonial, earlier in the day.

A statement from Rivlin's office said the president asked Johnson to extend an invitation to the royal family for a possible first-ever official visit to Israel.

The visit could also mark this year's 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

The declaration issued on November 2, 1917 by British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour said the British government "view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people".

It was a major step towards the eventual establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Netanyahu said he looked forward to visiting Britain in connection with the anniversary.

Palestinian leaders have sought to sue Britain over the declaration, arguing it led to the "Nakba", or catastrophe in Arabic, in which more than 760,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled in the war surrounding the creation of Israel.

Britain voted in favour of a UN Security Council resolution passed in December demanding a halt to settlement construction. The vote prompted Israel to temporarily scale back relations.

But Britain refused to sign the final statement of a Middle East peace conference held in Paris in January that was strongly opposed by Israel.

Netanyahu met British Prime Minister Theresa May in London in February, saying at the time that all "responsible nations" should back new sanctions against Israel's arch-foe Iran.

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