French prime minister visits Israel in peace plan push

Manuel Valls calls for halt to settlement building, says outcome of peace conference not predetermined; Netanyahu says adding Liberman to coalition won’t affect talks efforts

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls delivers a speech during the Interministerial committee of rural life on May 20, 2016, Privas, southeastern France.  (AFP/PHILIPPE DESMAZES)
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls delivers a speech during the Interministerial committee of rural life on May 20, 2016, Privas, southeastern France. (AFP/PHILIPPE DESMAZES)

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was in Israel Sunday to advance his country’s plan to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in the face of opposition from his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu.

Valls, who arrived on Saturday night, was to meet Netanyahu on Monday before traveling to Ramallah on Tuesday to hold talks with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.

On Sunday, Valls’s itinerary was mainly devoted to economic and cultural issues.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has welcomed the French initiative to hold a meeting of foreign ministers from a range of countries on June 3, without the Israelis and Palestinians present.

Another conference would then be held in the autumn, with the Israelis and Palestinians in attendance. The goal is to eventually restart negotiations that would lead to a Palestinian state.

Negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have been at a standstill since a US-led initiative collapsed in April 2014.

Valls’s visit comes at a time of political turbulence in Israel, with Netanyahu expected to soon finalize negotiations with the party of hardliner Avigdor Liberman, detested by the Palestinians, to join his coalition.

Liberman, who lives in a West Bank settlement, is expected to take on the key role of defense minister.

On Sunday, Netanyahu told his cabinet that adding Liberman to the coalition would not negatively impact peace efforts.

“A broad government will continue to strive for a diplomatic process with the Palestinians and we will do so with the assistance of elements in the region. I personally deal with this a lot, in many places, and I intend to continue to do so,” he told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

In an interview with Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam published Sunday, Valls said that Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank must stop.

But he also reiterated that his government would not automatically recognize a Palestinian state if the peace initiative failed.

A threat to do so was made in January by former foreign minister Laurent Fabius, angering the Israeli government. His successor Jean-Marc Ayrault has since backed away from the statement.

“The objective is to arrive at the creation of a Palestinian state,” Valls said in the interview.

“It is to allow your national aspirations to finally be realized. To say today when we will recognize the Palestinian state is to determine in advance the failure of our initiative.”

Valls said “we must also guarantee” Israel’s security, but called for a halt to settlement building, seen by many as a major stumbling block to peace.

“Stopping settlements is an imperative,” he said. “Because we cannot both want to discuss peace and be sincere in the negotiations and at the same time continue to create facts on the ground.”

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