France steps gingerly into Israel-Palestinian peace void
On Friday, the international community committed to try and push Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace talks under a French-led initiative, despite a decidedly lukewarm reaction from Washington and hostility from Israel.
Indirect peace talks between the two sides collapsed more than two years ago and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warned that the diplomatic void meant the prospect of a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict was in "serious danger." He repeated France's wish to organise an international conference, with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, before the end of the year.
Neither Israeli nor Palestinian representatives attended the talks in the French capital aimed at laying the ground for a fully-fledged peace conference to be held by the end of the year.
The Palestinians hailed the Paris meeting as a "very significant step" toward peace that sent a clear message to Israel about its ongoing occupation of lands they want for a future state. But Israel lashed out, saying the initiative would only strengthen the Palestinians' hand and would go down in history as having "pushed peace further away."
At the meeting, representatives from 28 countries, the Arab League, European Union and United Nations discussed ways in which the international community could "help advance the prospects for peace, including by providing meaningful incentives to the parties to make peace," according to a joint statement.
But few believe genuine progress will be made.
Despite a widespread sense of scepticism that the French initiative will succeed where so many others have failed, Ayrault said the world could not "fold its arms and do nothing."
In their final statement, the participants agreed that "the status quo is unsustainable" and voiced "alarm" at the situation on the ground, citing continuing acts of violence and Jewish settlement building.
Washington, which has traditionally taken on a mediating role between the two sides, has not tried to initiate any fresh peace moves since the previous US-led round of indirect talks collapsed in April 2014 and has remained decidedly cool on the French initiative.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told journalists after the talks that while "we need to find some immediate kinds of steps on the ground that would make a difference... we can't impose a solution from outside, we need to have direct negotiations and I will continue to encourage that."
Earlier, in opening the conference, French President Francois Hollande had urged Israel and the Palestinians to make a "courageous choice" for peace.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat said the Paris talks sent a "clear" message to Israel.
"The Paris meeting is a very significant step and its message is clear: If Israel is allowed to continue its colonisation and apartheid policies in occupied Palestine, the future will be for more extremism and bloodshed rather than for coexistence and peace," he said in a statement.
But Israel said the French effort would only cause the Palestinians to harden their positions.
"The Paris meeting will go down in history as having only hardened Palestinian positions and pushed peace further away," foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said in a statement after the meeting.
Ayrault said the talks were focused on the 2002 Saudi-led Arab peace initiative. Under that proposal, Arab leaders offered to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied since 1967 and the creation of a Palestinian state. At the time, the plan was largely ignored by Israel, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week he would be open to re-negotiating aspects of it with the Palestinians.
Speaking after the meeting, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir rejected this idea, saying the Arab peace initiative already "has all the elements for a final settlement."
"To argue that the Arab peace initiative should be watered down to accommodate the Israelis is not a wise approach," he said.
"It provides Israel with a lot of incentives and it's incumbent on the Israelis to accept that."
Analysts say Palestinian frustration of the deadlock in negotiations has driven a wave of violence that has left 206 Palestinians and 28 Israelis dead since October. Israel blames the bloodshed on incitement by Palestinian leaders and media. (AFP)
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