France plans to host an international conference aimed at restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as it seeks to fill a diplomatic void left by the collapse of US-led talks more than two years ago.
Many in the region are sceptical about whether France will be able to make progress in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, in which the US — Israel’s closest ally and supplier of $3.5bn in annual military aid — was unable to secure agreement even on a framework for talks.
Israel is sharply critical of the proposal. Some European countries have voiced support, but the US and Russia have not yet confirmed they will attend.
However, the Palestinians have welcomed the so-called “French initiative”, believing that although the US-led bilateral peace process, which began with the signing of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, has failed, a multilateral negotiation like the one that brought last year’s deal on Iran’s nuclear programme could succeed.
“Palestinians and Israelis need a third party to move things forward,” Rami Hamdallah, the Palestinian prime minister, told journalists at a news briefing on Monday. “Our previous experiences directly negotiating with the current rightwing Israeli government were ineffective and redundant.”
The last round of US-led talks collapsed in April 2014 after delays in a planned release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel, and Palestinian anger over Israeli construction in illegal settlements and an Israeli demand that they recognise the country as a Jewish state.
Mr Hamdallah said foreign ministers of more than 20 countries had committed to attending the French conference, which he said could be held in the first week of June, and that he hoped the eventual number would exceed 30. While neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority would be invited, the conference would aim to set parameters for later peace talks involving both parties.
Israel has not rejected the French proposal outright but officials have poured scorn on the idea. During a visit to Israel at the weekend by French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, said: “I told him that the only way to advance a true peace between us and the Palestinians is by means of direct negotiations between us and them, without preconditions.”
The ultimate goal of France’s initiative was to persuade both sides to return to direct talks, Mr Ayrault said, but Paris would still pursue the planned conference. “Only they can conduct direct negotiations to achieve a solution,” he said. “But because things are currently stuck …external intervention is necessary to provide renewed momentum.”
France has made repeated mis-steps in Israeli-Palestinian initiatives. In January, Laurent Fabius, the then foreign minister, angered Israel by saying Paris would automatically recognise a Palestinian state if the talks were to fail. However, in March Mr Ayrault backtracked, saying recognition would not be automatic.
Mr Hamdallah said John Kerry, US secretary of state, had told Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president, that he would attend. A US official in Jerusalem declined to comment on Mr Hamdallah’s remarks.
“The French are clearly acting without co-ordinating with the US, to the frustration of the US,” said Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Jerusalem.
It was “a big question” whether the conference would lead to its planned second phase of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he said, but added that it might set the stage for initiatives by other parties, including a UN Security Council resolution on the conflict.
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