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French diplomatic effort to rekindle Israeli-Palestinian peace process faces uphill battle

Ahmad Gharabli, AFP | An Arab-Israeli girl holds a Palestinian flag as she marches for the right of return for Palestinian refugees, near the southern Israeli Bedouin of Rahat on May 12, 2016.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is set to travel to Israel and the Palestinian Territories this weekend to try to gain traction for French efforts to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he may be facing an uphill battle.

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While the Palestinians have said they welcome a planned May 30 conference in Paris aimed at relaunching the peace process, which has been effectively frozen since a US-brokered initiative collapsed in April 2014, the Israeli prime minister’s office rejected the initiative, saying a solution could only be reached through bilateral relations.

The French have invited the foreign ministers from a score of Asian, Arab and European nations to the conference in Paris. Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian foreign ministers were invited to the talks. US Secretary of State John Kerry has not confirmed his attendance.

Ayrault has said the aim of the meeting is to set the framework for an international summit in the second half of 2016, to which Israeli and Palestinian representatives would be invited. His predecessor, Laurent Fabius, said that if the French peace push failed to achieve results, France would recognize a Palestinian state.

Ayrault is scheduled to meet both with Netanyahu and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Showing just how committed France is to the efforts, Prime Minister Manuel Valls will travel to the region a week later.

The French are hoping to capitalize on what looks to some like a promising moment, when Israel and other Arab states are closer than ever because of their shared opposition to Iran, said Alon Ben-Meir, professor and senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

But the US, a key player in the region, has yet to throw its weight behind the French initiative. Experts say Washington is unlikely to want to allow France to take the lead on an issue that it traditionally sees as its own.

"They're reluctant on at least two fronts," said Ghaith al-Omari, a fellow of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy and a former adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators.

"One front is that there's always been American reluctance to engage in anything about the peace process that is not American led," he told AFP.

"The other component is that the administration has not decided yet whether or not they will be doing something American in the next few months."

Reports in Washington have suggested that President Barack Obama, due to leave office in January, may be planning a major speech to outline terms for peace.

But Obama has yet to decide whether to insert himself into an issue that has frustrated so many of his predecessors -- or whether to let the French try.

"Until there's a decision it's unlikely that the US will engage in any external initiatives," Omari said.

"If the president is going to give a speech I can't see Kerry going to the French initiative. If not then there might be more space for American engagement" in the French process.

With or without US involvement, France has its work cut out for it. Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold told The Jerusalem Post newspaper Friday that the French proposal had "many problems".

Gold cited the support last month by France for a UNESCO resolution that, he said, "rejects the historic Jewish connection to Jerusalem".

The April 16 resolution by the UN's cultural body condemned Israel for restricting access of Muslim worshippers to the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is also sacred to Jews who call it the Temple Mount.

In the resolution, the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, appears only twice in parentheses.

Israel accused UNESCO of "distorting history" and Gold said because of the vote "it should not come as a surprise that Israel rejects the French initiative and the political horizon it aspires to ultimately expose".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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