A highly anticipated and hotly contested Middle East peace conference kicked off in Paris Sunday morning, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault saying the gathering will strive to give the sides “new chances” to reach a peace agreement.
France is hosting more than 70 countries on Sunday at the summit in an effort to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which Palestinians warn would be dealt a further blow if US President-elect Donald Trump implements a campaign pledge to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The conference is expected to condemn Israeli settlement building and urge Israel and the Palestinians “to officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution.”
In an opening statement, Ayrault listed the goals for the conference as threefold: pushing a two-state solution forward, fostering direct negotiations and “tracing the path forward for the weeks and months ahead.”
“The two-state solution is the only possibility — the only — that would allow us to respond to the legitimate aspirations of both parties,” he said.
“Both parties are very far apart and their relationship is one of distrust — a particularly dangerous situation,” Ayrault added. “Our collective responsibility is to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. We know it is difficult, but is there an alternative? No, there isn’t.”
Neither Israel nor the Palestinians are represented at the conference and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed the talks as “rigged” against the Jewish state.
On Sunday, Netanyahu leveled a fresh attack on the summit, calling it “pointless.”
“It is coordinated between the French and the Palestinians with the goal of imposing on Israel conditions that do not correspond with our national needs. It also distances peace as it hardens Palestinians conditions and keeps them away from direct negotiations without preconditions. I have to say that this conference is among the last remnants of the world of yore. Tomorrow will look different, and tomorrow is very close,” he said at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
Ayrault said France has no objective other than paving a way toward “new chances for dialogue between the parties.”
“France doesn’t have intention other than promoting peace. The situation is such that there’s no time to waste,” he said.
He acknowledged opposition to the conference based on its timing — five days before US President-elect Donald Trump takes office, it is a final chance for the Obama administration to lay out its positions for the region — but, citing last month’s UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement, declared the issue had been pushed back to the top of the international agenda.
“The two-state solution, under such threat today, and the necessity of preserving it, were forcefully reaffirmed by resolution 2334,” he said. “This is not the moment to stop.”
The Palestinians have welcomed France’s bid for the conference to reaffirm global support for a two-state solution to the seven-decade-old conflict.
Peace efforts have been at a standstill since April 2014.
On Saturday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned that acute tensions could boil over again if Trump moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“Any attempts at legitimizing the illegal Israeli annexation of the city will destroy the prospects of any political process, bury the hopes for a two-state solution, and fuel extremism in our region, as well as worldwide,” Abbas said during a visit to the Vatican.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who rebuked Israel recently over its settlements policy, is attending the talks, along with delegates from the UN, EU, Arab League and other organizations.
The meeting is intended to back a UN Security Council resolution last month condemning Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The Security Council adopted the resolution after the Obama administration — in what many took as a parting shot at Netanyahu — took the rare step of abstaining from the vote.
Netanyahu called the resolution “shameful” and has also lashed out at the Paris meeting, saying only direct talks between the two sides can bring peace.
Ties with the outgoing US administration have fallen to a new low, but Israel is looking for a more sympathetic hearing from Trump after he takes power on January 20.
Right-wing lawmakers, including some from Netanyahu’s own Likud party, have said Trump’s win represents a “historic opportunity” to quash the chance of Palestinians getting an independent state.
Trump, who vehemently opposed the December UN vote on settlements, has said “there’s nobody more pro-Israeli than I am.”
His choice for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said he looks forward to working from “Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
The city’s status is one of the thorniest issues in the conflict, which is why almost every foreign embassy is currently based in Tel Aviv.
The Palestinians regard Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while Israel proclaims the entire city as its capital.
Israel has said it fears the French conference could produce measures that could be put to the Security Council before Trump is sworn in on Friday.
The French, however, have insisted they have no plans for follow-up action.
Abbas will meet French President Francois Hollande in the coming weeks to be briefed on the conference outcome, French diplomats said.
Netanyahu declined a similar invitation, they said.
Raphael Ahren and Suha Halifa contributed to this report.