Paris Mideast summit postponed over Kerry scheduling clash
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Paris Mideast summit postponed over Kerry scheduling clash

President Hollande says conference opposed by Israel will take place ‘in the summer’; embassy says France ‘looking for a new date’

France's President Francois Hollande speaks during a morning radio show on France's Europe 1 station in Paris, May 17, 2016. (AFP/Miguel Medina/Pool)
France's President Francois Hollande speaks during a morning radio show on France's Europe 1 station in Paris, May 17, 2016. (AFP/Miguel Medina/Pool)

A conference on the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, due to be held on May 30 in Paris, has been postponed, French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday, days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Paris to call it off.

“(US Secretary of State) John Kerry cannot come on May 30 so it has been delayed. It will take place in the summer,” Hollande told French radio.

The summit, set to be held in Paris, will host an international meeting of 20 countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to discuss the peace process. Israel and the Palestinians have not been invited and while Jerusalem has rejected the idea, it has been welcomed in Ramallah.

A spokesperson for the French Embassy in Israel told The Times of Israel that Paris is “looking for a new date.”

Hollande said it was vital for France to take “a strong initiative” in the dispute.

“If not… what will happen? Settlement building, attacks,” he said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to journalists before a meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, in Paris, May 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to journalists before a meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, in Paris, May 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

The US State Department said Monday that Kerry would be unavailable on the day of the conference, which falls on the US Memorial Day holiday honoring members of the armed forces who died in combat, but that the United States and France are looking into a possible alternative date for the ministerial discussions.

“We’ve made it clear that the May 30 date originally proposed by the French would not work for the secretary and for his schedule,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. “We’re in discussions right now with the French about any possible alternative date that might better work for the secretary.”

Kerry’s agenda in May is already “jammed,” Kirby said. The secretary of state is currently in Europe before heading to Asia until May 27, and is expected in China again in early June.

Israel has rejected the initiative, saying direct negotiations are the only way to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.

Speaking to ministers ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “any other attempt only makes peace more remote and gives the Palestinians an escape hatch to avoid confronting the root of the conflict.”

The Prime Minister’s Office was not immediately available to comment on Hollande’s announcement that the conference would be postponed.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry also declined comment and there was no immediate reaction from Palestinian officials.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Sunday to present the French peace initiative to Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on May 15, 2016 during a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. (AFP Photo/Pool/Menahem Kahana)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on May 15, 2016 during a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. (AFP Photo/Pool/Menahem Kahana)

He received support from the Palestinians but objections from Israel, with Netanyahu questioning French “impartiality” after Paris voted in favor of a UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount that did not mention Jewish ties to the holy site.

Netanyhau told Ayrault Sunday morning that France’s “scandalous decision” to vote in favor of the 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.”

Ayrault later said the US “shared our concern” and France would be willing to move the conference “a day or two” in order to allow Kerry to attend, signaling for the first time the involvement and support of the United States.

A staunch ally of Israel, Washington has traditionally brokered direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians and played down multilateral initiatives, especially within the United Nations.

The United States has regularly called for a “two-state solution” to the Middle East crisis since the last US-brokered talks collapsed in April 2014.

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