France puts Israel-Palestinian conflict back in focus

AFP-

France will on Friday host talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have received a chilly response from Washington, but diplomats say merely swinging the spotlight back onto the stalemate is a victory.

After decades of failed negotiations, few believe the climate is right to bring together the Israelis and Palestinians for another shot at solving one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

Indeed, neither party has been invited to Friday’s talks.

Instead representatives of some 25 countries, as well as the United Nations, European Union and Arab League, will try and lay the ground for a fully-fledged peace conference to be held by the end of the year.

“Right now if we put Palestinians and Israelis around a table it is highly likely the discussion will last less than a few minutes,” said a French diplomatic source.

While scepticism is high over the new peace bid, the consensus among some diplomats appears to be that any effort is better than none at all.

“The fear in France is that there is no credible perspective of solving this issue, diplomatically or politically,” the diplomatic source in Paris told AFP.

“We risk heading towards even more violence in an international context where there is no visible American effort on the case.”

 

– American reluctance –

The United States, the traditional mediator in the conflict, has not moved the two sides towards a new peace process since talks collapsed in April 2014.

Washington has been decidedly cool on the French initiative, with US Secretary of State John Kerry agreeing to attend merely to listen to ideas proposed by France and others.

“We’re not bringing any specific proposals to this meeting tomorrow,” a senior State Department official said, adding that no one had “any real firm ideas” on what the outcome was expected to be.

“We haven’t made any decisions about what, if any, our role would be in that initiative going forward.”

Meanwhile, Israel is fiercely opposed to the French initiative.

The head of Israel’s foreign ministry Dore Gold said on the eve of the talks that they would “completely fail”, and that the Jewish state would prefer a Middle East-driven process backing direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

According to diplomatic sources, the French conference will seek to focus on a 2002 Saudi-led peace initiative.

Under that proposal, Arab leaders said they would recognise the state of Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied since 1967, and the creation of a Palestinian state.

The plan was largely ignored by Israel at the time, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week he would be open to re-negotiating aspects of it with the Palestinians.

 

– ‘New opportunity for peace’ –

“In a way, the French initiative has already had an impact, as it has forced Netanyahu to propose an alternative in the Arab Peace Initiative,” a European diplomat in Israel told AFP.

“If the international community comes together and says the two-state solution is the only option, that is important in itself –- after years of people talking about the two-state solution being dead.”

In recent years the dragging conflict has fallen behind in diplomatic priorities as other Middle Eastern crises such as the Arab Spring, the war in Syria and refugee and war in Syria took precedence.

Mired in political divisions and desperation after numerous failed attempts to get their own state, the Palestinians are fully backing the French plan.

Analysts say this Palestinian frustration has driven a wave of violence which has left 206 Palestinians and 28 Israelis dead since October.

Most of the Palestinians killed were carrying out knife, gun or car-ramming attacks, Israeli authorities say.

Israel blames incitement by Palestinian leaders and media as a main cause of the violence.

The European diplomat in Israel said that senior Israeli officials have indicated that they see a rare opportunity for a breakthrough with Gulf countries, with both sides united around a dislike of Iran.

“Our feeling is that the extremely fluctuating context in the Middle East creates new risks, but also new opportunities for peace,” said the Paris diplomat.