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Paris Israeli-Palestinian peace conference postponed

Menahem Kahana / AFP | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault meet in Jerusalem on Sunday May 15, 2016.

French President François Hollande said on Tuesday an international conference planned for late May in Paris to relaunch peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis had been postponed until the summer.


With US efforts to broker a two-state accord in tatters and Washington focused on the November US presidential election, Paris has lobbied countries to hold a conference before then to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had proposed May 30 for the talks, but US Secretary of State John Kerry is not available on that date, Hollande told Europe 1 radio.

“John Kerry cannot come on May 30. It’s postponed, it will take place, it will take place in the course of the summer,” he said in an interview.

“This initiative is necessary because if nothing happens, if there is no strong French initiative, then colonisation, attacks, terrorist attacks and several conflicts are going to continue,” he added.

Speaking to reporters later Tuesday, Ayrault said the talks are likely to resume at the beginning of June.

“The objective remains the political process. We want (UN Special Envoy) Staffan de Mistura to gather the negotiators as soon as possible and we have fixed ourselves an objective of the start of June if possible,” he said.

US reluctance

Paris plans to host a ministerial meeting of 20 countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as a first step to discuss the peace process which has been effectively frozen since a US-brokered initiative collapsed in April 2014.

Israel and the Palestinians have not been invited.

Ayrault has said the aim of the meeting is to set the framework for an international summit in the second half of 2016, which it is hoped Israeli and Palestinian representatives will attend. Ayrault's predecessor, Laurent Fabius, said that if the French peace push failed to achieve results, France would recognise a Palestinian state.

But the French initiative has faced difficulties in gaining momentum. The Israeli prime minister’s office has rejected the talks, saying a solution could only be reached through bilateral relations.

A weekend visit to Israel by Ayrault, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to heal the rift.

“I told him that the only way to advance true peace between us and the Palestinians is through direct talks, without preconditions," Netanyahu said after the meeting.

Meanwhile, an apparent initial reluctance by the US to confirm whether or not Kerry would attend has been seen by some as Washington being unwilling 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."

‘Unfortunate’ dispute over holy site

In his comments Tuesday, Hollande also voiced regret about a resolution passed by the United Nations cultural body UNESCO last month that failed to acknowledge Jewish ties to Jerusalem’s holiest site, and caused anger in Israel.

“There was an unfortunate amendment put forward by the Jordanians ... which blurred this text,” Hollande said of the decision, which concerns the site known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif or the al-Aqsa compound and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The resolution only used the Arabic terms for the site.

The dispute has further damaged relations between France and Israel, since France was among the countries that supported the resolution.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said France's backing of the text "casts a shadow" over Paris's impartiality in the upcoming peace conference.

“I promise to be extremely vigilant when the next resolution is put forward in October,” Hollande said Tuesday. “I will look at it personally. It’s not possible to call into question the fact that these holy sites belong to three religions."


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