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Israel to Hague: Come to see Gaza

    Invite: William Hague
    Invite: William Hague

    William Hague will visit Israel within the next month on his first official visit to the region as Foreign Secretary - and has been invited by Israel's own Foreign Minister to visit Gaza.

    The exact date of Mr Hague's trip is dependent on the completion of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which are currently being planned.

    Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has suggested that Mr Hague also travels to Gaza as part of a group of European foreign ministers.

    That raises the prospect of Hamas asking to meet the ministers during their visit.

    Mr Lieberman's hope is that the group could also go to Ashdod and Sderot to see first-hand how goods are delivered to Gaza, and to discuss economic development for the Palestinians. The other foreign ministers invited are from Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

    A spokesman at the Israeli Embassy in London said: "Lieberman's idea was to bring five foreign ministers to the region so they can see with their own eyes the situation in Gaza."

    Should the proposal fail, it is expected that Mr Hague will travel only to Israel, although exact details of which Israeli ministers he would meet are yet to be finalised.

    Both the British and Israeli governments are keen for the trip to be seen as high-profile and to avoid it being overshadowed by a clash with the hosts' talks with the Palestinians.

    Israel wants to begin those talks as soon as possible, before the ten-month moratorium on building in the settlements ends next month.

    Whitehall hopes Mr Hague's visit will convince the international community that Britain can play a serious role in the Middle East peace process.

    He has been eager to travel to Israel since May's election, but accepted that the controversy over universal jurisdiction legislation would have been a major sticking point in diplomatic discussions.

    Mr Hague's own relationship with the Jewish state has sometimes been strained. A regular visitor, he has described himself as a "natural friend of Israel" and has said he considers himself a Zionist.

    But in 2006, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, he led the attack on Israel's action against Lebanon, calling it "disproportionate" and drawing widespread criticism from the Jewish community and Tory supporters of Israel.

    Earlier this year Mr Hague said the criticism had stemmed from the belief that the war did Israel more harm than good, adding that he had not condemned Operation Cast Lead, but had rather called for a ceasefire on both sides.

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