France on Friday hosted top diplomats from the West and the Arab world to organise a peace conference by year’s end that will revive long-dormant Israeli-Palestinian negotiations despite slim chances of success.
French President Francois Hollande urged Israel and the Palestinians to make a “courageous choice” for peace as he opened the conference on the conflict in Paris.
The meeting is aimed at laying the ground for a full-fledged peace conference to be held by the end of the year but few believe genuine progress will be made.
Neither Israel nor the Palestinians have been invited to the talks and Israel has angrily compared the French initiative to the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement to draw up the region’s borders.
Although US Secretary of State John Kerry is attending the conference, Washington has made it clear it believes little or nothing will be achieved.
Hollande said a solution will have to come from the Middle East, but in the end it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians “to make the courageous choice of peace”.
“The discussion on the conditions of a lasting agreement between Israelis and Palestinians must take into account the whole of the region,” he told representatives of some 25 countries, as well as the UN, European Union and Arab League.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters major powers have a duty to revive talks between Israel and Palestine and that the perspectives created by the Oslo accords in 1993 were at risk.
“The policy of settlement expansion and demolitions, violence, and incitement tells us very clearly that the perspective that Oslo opened up is seriously at risk of fading away,” Mogherini told reporters.
France has said it felt compelled to act because opportunities for setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel are slipping away, while the situation in the region is deteriorating.
Participants in Friday’s meetings will work out details of the conference to be held at the end of the year and set up teams that will spell out economic and security incentives for Israelis and Palestinians for reaching a deal.
“We cannot substitute for the parties. Our initiative aims at giving them guarantees that the peace will be solid, sustainable and under international supervision,” Hollande told the gathering.
Besides Secretary of State Kerry, the meeting is being attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and representatives from the Arab League, the European Union and key Arab states.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed the French initiative and said a deal can only be reached in direct negotiations.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed France’s efforts, in part because it could potentially end a two-decade-old US monopoly on mediation. Palestinians have long complained that the US heavily favours Israel and cannot serve as an honest broker.
The Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967. In 2012, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly recognised a state of Palestine in these boundaries, though setting up an actual state requires a deal with Israel.
For now, chances of reviving negotiations appear remote because of the lack of common ground.
Unlike his predecessors, Netanyahu refuses to recognise the pre-1967 lines as a starting point for border talks, with agreed upon land swaps - the internationally backed formula for a peace deal.
Abbas says there’s no point going back to talks without ground rules and a timeline for a deal.
Continued Israeli settlement expansion on occupied lands and several months of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence have also undermined trust.
It’s not clear how the French efforts will bridge these gaps. The last high-level Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were held in 2008 between Abbas and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Subsequent efforts to restart meaningful talks failed, most recently in 2014 when Kerry aborted a mediation mission following a year of low-level Israeli-Palestinian meetings.
Abbas’ aides have said they want other world powers to get involved, like in last year’s deal on Iran’s nuclear program. The existing model of Israeli-Palestinian talks brokered by the US has failed because of the power gap between an occupying power and those it occupies, they have said.
Dore Gold, the director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, predicted on Thursday that the Paris conference will “completely fail” and the “only way to make peace” is through direct talks.
Israel has indicated an openness recently to some elements of an Arab peace proposal from 2002, which promised peace and recognition of Israel by the Arab and Muslim world in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state. Gold gave no indication of any movement on that proposal.