French President Francois Hollande kicked off Friday’s Israel-Palestinian peace summit in Paris by calling on both sides to make the “courageous choice” to advance peace.
“This initiative has only one goal, peace in Middle East. It was desirable and became necessary,” Hollande said at the opening session of the conference, speaking shortly before foreign ministers from around the world were meeting behind closed doors.
Hollande said a solution had to involve the “whole region,” but in the end it was up to the Israelis and Palestinians.
“We can’t take the place of the parties,” he said, acknowledging the absence of both Israeli and Palestinian officials at the conference. “We can only make sure that peace will be solid, lasting and internationally safeguarded.”
Neither Israel nor the Palestinians are represented at Friday’s talks, which aim to lay the ground for a fully fledged peace conference to be held by the end of the year.
Hollande warned that the status quo threatened to fan the flames of terrorism. “Violence is growing and hope is fading — that’s why we want to try and revive the peace process. We must work to realize that in the regional context and diplomatic vacuum will be filled by extremism and terror,” Haaretz quoted him saying.
“Considerable progress has been made, but there is still no peace,” Hollande said. “France doesn’t seek anything for itself. Its sole purpose is to foster peace.”
The conference, which has been embraced by the Palestinian Authority but fiercely rejected by the Israeli government, aims to formulate a “framework” for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to discuss ways in which the international community can provide incentives for the two sides to reach an agreement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Friday doubled down on its criticism of the summit, asserting that it was bound to fail.
“We need direct negotiations, and for that we don’t need to go as far as Paris,” an official from the Prime Minister’s Office told Army Radio just a few hours before the conference kicked off in the French capital.
Direct negotiation “doesn’t work,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault countered ahead of the conference.
Israel’s Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan said what was happening in Paris was “surreal,” since it was entirely unrealistic to believe that anything said or done there could change things for the better on the ground. The only way to solve the conflict was via direct talks, but Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “has been boycotting Israel for the past seven years,” said Erdan, and has decided to spend “the remainder of his days trying to damage Israel internationally.”
France persuaded US Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and foreign ministers and officials from close to 30 other countries and international organizations to join Friday’s meeting.
The head of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, said Thursday that the French initiative was “doomed to failure.” Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah welcomed it.
The half-day conference was expected to end with a universal vote of confidence in the two-state solution, and an urgent appeal to establish a “clear timetable” for the resumption of peace talks.
Hollande said in a statement Thursday that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict faces a “dangerous deadlock.” The meeting will allow participants to “reaffirm their commitment to the two-state solution and their determination to create the conditions for resumption of direct talks,” he said.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, prefers a regional summit with Arab states, who have more sway with the Palestinians than France, PMO sources told Army Radio.
A day before the meeting, Ayrault warned that if upcoming French efforts to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process did not bear fruit, the region was “heading for disaster.”
Ayrault envisioned two outcomes for Friday’s conference.
First, the prospect of another peace conference that would include the Israelis and the Palestinians by the end of the year, he told Le Monde newspaper Thursday. Second, the creation of working groups to prepare for potential direct talks. One would focus on economic incentives, another on security guarantees that could help convince the two parties to come back to the negotiation table.
The core issues of the conflict will not be discussed during Friday’s conference.
France hopes to start a “pragmatic” process in hopes of make progress “step by step,” a French diplomat said, praising a “modest approach.”
Another French diplomat added: “We know the path is difficult, the goal will be hard to reach. But we considered it’s worth trying.”
The most recent round of talks broke down two years ago. The Palestinians, along with much of the international community, have accused Netanyahu of undermining peace talks by continued settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — territories where they hope to establish an independent state. Netanyahu has said he will open talks with Abbas without preconditions at any time, and that he seeks a two-state solution under which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.