French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Sunday that the Middle East peace conference his country is organizing will take place as planned, despite public opposition from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the lack of either Israeli or Palestinian representatives attending.
Speaking at Ben Gurion airport after a fleeting visit to the region to meet with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Ayrault said the conference is not a replacement for direct talks and is just the beginning of a process aimed at bringing Israelis and Palestinian to the negotiating table.
“It’s clear to us — and I said this to Netanyahu and Abbas — that we cannot fulfill the role of the two sides,” Ayraulet said. “They will need to carry out direct negotiations but because the process is stuck, they need external help. The goal [of the conference] is to encourage them return to the negotiating table.”
The May 30 summit will include ministers from 20 countries to discuss reviving peace negotiations. The conference has been welcomed by the Palestinians, who suspended a planned UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements to focus on the French efforts. Israel, however, has consistently argued that peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the two sides, rather than in international forums.
PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki told reporters after Ayrault’s meeting with Abbas that unlike the Israelis, the Palestinians welcomed the French initiative.
“We wish France and its efforts success because the French efforts are the only ones on the ground now, and could eventually result in giving the political process a good push forward at this stage,” Malki said.
Ayrault reiterated Sunday that the aim of the meeting is to prepare an international summit in the second half of 2016, which would include Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The second conference would take place “some time in the autumn,” he said.
According to Ayrault, a former French prime minister, discussions at the meeting would be based on the 2002 Saudi peace initiative — approved by the Arab League but not Israel — which called on the Jewish state to withdraw from Palestinian territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War, including East Jerusalem, in exchange for a normalization of ties with Arab countries. It also outlined the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and envisaged a “just solution” of the refugee issue.
Netanyhau told Ayrault Sunday morning that France’s “scandalous decision” to vote in favor of a UNESCO resolution “which doesn’t recognize the millennia-old connection between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount casts a shadow on France’s impartiality in any forum it’s trying to convene.”
Sources close to Ayrault said on Sunday that France “regretted” the resolution, echoing remarks by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls who on Wednesday called it “clumsy” and “unfortunate” and said it should have been avoided.
Netanyahu said during a cabinet meeting Sunday that he told Ayrault “that the only way to advance true peace between us and the Palestinians is through direct talks, without preconditions.”
“Any other attempt just distances peace and gives Palestinians a means of evading dealing with the root of the conflict, which is not recognizing the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said he told the French foreign minister in their meeting.
Ayrault said that the opposition to the summit does not weaken France’s resolve and the conference will take place next month as planned.
“We are not giving up, and neither are our partners,” he said.
“France has no vested interest, but is deeply convinced that if we don’t want to let the ideas of the Islamic State group prosper in this region, we must do something,” he added, stressing that the international community feels there is an urgent need to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He did however say that France would be willing to move the conference “a day or two,” in order to allow US Secretary of State John Kerry to attend, signaling for the first time the involvement and support of the United States.
US-brokered peace talks broke down in April 2014 after a nine-month effort to get the sides to hammer out an agreement.
Ayrault’s visit comes a week before Valls is due to arrive in the region to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Valls will meet with Netanyahu a day after his arrival in Israel on May 24. He also plans to hold talks with President Reuven Rivlin, former president Shimon Peres and opposition leader Isaac Herzog. He is then scheduled to travel to Ramallah, where he will meet with PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
AFP and Times of Israel contributed to this report.