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Day after Paris summit, EU ministers to huddle on peace effort

French conference and UN Security Council resolution, both derided by Israel, to form basis of working lunch on pushing Israeli-Palestinian talks forward

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini 2nd right, as they take part with other foreign ministers and representatives in a family picture during the Mideast peace conference in Paris on January 15, 2017. (AFP/ POOL/Bertrand GUAY)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini 2nd right, as they take part with other foreign ministers and representatives in a family picture during the Mideast peace conference in Paris on January 15, 2017. (AFP/ POOL/Bertrand GUAY)

European foreign ministers are set to discuss pushing forward Israeli-Palestinian peace talks Monday, a day after an international summit called on the sides to commit to the two-state solution as the only path to peace.

The European Union’s Foreign Affairs council is slated to hold a working lunch on the issue during its first meeting of 2017, though the bulk of the conference will be devoted to Syria.

Among the topics of discussion will be the results of two events hotly contested by Israel: Sunday’s Paris peace conference and last month’s UN Security Council resolution, which called settlements “illegal.”

“Ministers will discuss the way forward to achieve a comprehensive peace deal, preserve the viability of the two-state solution and reverse ongoing negative trends on the ground,” a statement on the meeting read.

In remarks at the start of the meeting in Brussels, EU Foreign Policy head Federica Mogherini said she and EU diplomats will discuss the body’s work toward resolving the conflict, “especially trying to lay down the conditions for the parties to do their part and re-start serious talks.”

Many of the bloc’s 28 foreign ministers were in Paris for the peace conference a day earlier, where they urged both sides to “officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution” and disassociate from voices that reject this.

A closing statement also warned the sides against taking one-sided actions that could hurt talks, an apparent reference to Israeli settlement building. Britain, breaking ranks, criticized the conference and refused to sign the joint statement.

While the Palestinians welcomed Sunday’s declaration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the conference “rigged” and cooked up behind Israel’s back to force it to accept conditions against national interests.

However, Israeli diplomats also said the text had been significantly softened from verbiage used in UN Security Council Resolution 2334, with no direct mention made of illegal settlement building, attributing the “victory” to pressure from Jerusalem.

Resolution 2334, was adopted on December 23, was supported by 14 out of the 15 members of the Security Council. The US abstained but did not use its veto power to block the resolution, which says Israeli settlements are in violation of international law and have no legal validity and demands an end to settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The resolution also denounced terrorism and incitement to violence.

Many members of Netanyahu’s coalition want to abandon the two-state solution and expand settlements, and some have even called for annexing parts of the West Bank. US President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign platform made no mention of Palestinian independence.

In a nod to Israel, the final declaration of Sunday’s conference included criticism of incitement and “terror,” a reference to Palestinian attacks. And some of the pro-Palestinian language in an earlier draft was removed after diplomats met in Paris.

French President Francois Hollande (C) shakes hands with Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar (L) next to French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayrault (R) as he arrives for the Mideast peace conference in Paris on January 15, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / POOL / bertrand GUAY)
French President Francois Hollande (C) shakes hands with Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar (L) next to French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayrault (R) as he arrives for the Mideast peace conference in Paris on January 15, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / POOL / bertrand GUAY)

The French organizers argued the conference was necessary to keep hopes alive for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians — the solution favored by the international community for the past two decades.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been increasingly critical of Netanyahu, represented Washington at the talks and defended the effort.

He rejected Israeli criticism of the conference, saying the concept of a two-state solution to the conflict is “threatened” and must be reinforced if it is ever to happen. The communique, he said, endorses that without imposing a resolution.

“Given where things are going and what is happening, that is particularly important,” he said.

He also warned that it was too early to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem, as proposed by Trump. “This is not the right time,” he said. “We think it’s ill-advised.”

Trump’s administration did not take part in the meeting and didn’t immediately comment on its final statement.

While Netanyahu has voiced support for a two-state solution, his critics, including Kerry, have said that continued settlement construction on occupied territories raises questions about his commitment to pursuing a peace deal.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon dismissed Sunday’s conference, tweeting that it was “flat as a failed soufflé.”

“A big show is no replacement for direct negotiations between the parties,” he said.

French President Francois Hollande agreed on the need for direct talks. “It is not a question of dictating to the parties … Only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can lead to peace. No one will do it in their place,” he said.

“The world cannot, should not resign itself to the status quo,” Hollande told the gathered diplomats from across Europe, the Mideast and other regions, as well as from the United Nations, the Arab League and other international organizations.

Hollande said he was sounding an “alert” that peace talks should be revived before violent extremists and Israeli settlements destroy any hope of a two-state solution. Hollande urged the diplomats to support peace efforts by offering economic incentives to Israelis and Palestinians.

The chief Palestinian representative to France warned the Trump administration not to “underestimate” the message of peace sent by the conference, or the UN resolution last month condemning Israel’s construction of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Salman Elherfi, speaking to The Associated Press, insisted “the option of two states is not the dream of a single country, but it has become the concern of the whole world to protect it.”

Palestinian officials hope the conference can lay out terms for eventual negotiations, notably on how to share Jerusalem and the need to stop Israeli settlements.

France and others expressed concern that the Trump administration could unleash new tensions in the region by condoning settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians and moving the US Embassy. The embassy issue wasn’t mentioned, however, in the final declaration.

Netanyahu declined an invitation to a special meeting after the conference, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was initially expected, but his visit to Paris was postponed.

The Israeli prime minister said the gathering would do little to promote peace and marked the “last flutters of yesterday’s world.”

“Tomorrow will look different and tomorrow is very close,” he said in apparent reference to Trump’s incoming administration.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have not negotiated even indirectly since a failed US-led peace effort in 2014.

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