Sun | Aug 20, 2017

World diplomats in Paris to urge renewed Mideast peace talks

Published:Sunday | January 15, 2017 | 1:23 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks to a waiting car as he arrives at Le Bourget Airport Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017 in Paris, France. Kerry is attending a Middle East peace conference

PARIS (AP) -- Sending a forceful message to Israel and the incoming Trump administration, more than 70 world diplomats gathered in Paris on Sunday to say they want peace in the Mideast - and that establishing a Palestinian state is the only way to achieve it.

French President Francois Hollande said he was sounding an "alert" that peace talks should be revived for "the security of Israel, security of all the region" before violent extremists and Israeli settlements destroy any hope of a two-state solution.

While the Palestinians welcomed Sunday's conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it "rigged" and cooked up behind Israel's back to force it to accept conditions against national interests.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's administration did not take part, and even the conference organisers weren't expecting any breakthroughs.

But French diplomats think there's nothing to lose by trying. They fear Trump will unleash new tensions in the region by condoning settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians and potentially moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem.

The French president warned Trump against any "improvised" or destabilise actions after he takes office Friday.

"It is not a question of dictating to the parties," Hollande insisted, acknowledging Netanyahu's hostility toward the conference. "Only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can lead to peace. No one will do it in their place."

"The world cannot, should not resign itself to the status quo," he told the gathered diplomats from across Europe, the Mideast and other regions, as well as from the United Nations, Arab League and other international organisations.

Hollande urged them to support peace efforts by offering economic incentives to Israelis and Palestinians.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been increasingly outspoken about Mideast tensions, was in Paris defending American interests at the conference. His last major diplomatic foray before he leaves office, it marked the end of eight years of failed U.S. efforts at Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.

Netanyahu declined an invitation to a special meeting after the conference, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was initially expected, but his visit to Paris was postponed.

The Israeli prime minister said the gathering would do little to promote peace and marked the "last flutters of yesterday's world."

"Tomorrow will look different and tomorrow is very close," he said in apparent reference to Trump's incoming administration.

Palestinian officials hope the conference can lay out terms for eventual negotiations, notably on how to share Jerusalem and the need to stop Israeli settlements.

"We see in it as an attempt by the global community, by the international community, to lead the foundations and the requirements of just peace by having clear terms of reference," Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Sunday in Ramallah.

Ashrawi also warned of growing racism and extremism, and expressed fears that Trump would fuel tensions.

According to a draft statement obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, the conference will urge Israel and the Palestinians "to officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution."

It also will affirm that the international community "will not recognise" changes to Israel's pre-1967 lines without agreement by both sides.

A draft circulating Sunday did not include direct reference to moving the U.S. embassy, a move that could be seen as recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital after decades of insisting that the city's status must be determined by direct negotiations.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have not negotiated even indirectly since a failed U.S.-led peace effort in 2014.

While the conference was underway, a few hundred pro-Israel demonstrators, waving Israeli flags and placards denouncing the summit, gathered outside Israel's embassy in Paris.

"The Palestinians and a number of Arab states have not expressed a will for peace," Serge Klarsfeld, a well-known famous French Nazi hunter, said. "If it existed and if the Arab world recognised the existence of Israel, we would find the means to solve all the problems very quickly."

The demonstrators loudly booed French lawmaker Pierre Lellouche when he took the podium and declared himself in favour of a "two-state solution" and the halting of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.

Ariel Goldmann, president of the French Jewish association Fonds Social Juif Unifié, called the conference a "mockery of dialogue, a mockery of peace, a historical mockery." Goldmann said he was "sad that France is lending itself to such a manoeuvre."