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Diplomats gather in Paris in bid to revive Middle Eastern peace process

French foreign minister warns prospects for two-state solution are 'getting further away' as neither Israelis nor Palestinians attend talks
US Secretary of State John Kerry was among senior delegates in Paris, but neither Israel nor Palestine sent negotiators (AFP)

Foreign ministers of 25 countries gathered in Paris on Friday for the latest internationally driven attempt to get the Palestinians and the Israelis back into serious peace negotiations.

As he welcomed the delegates, French President Francois Hollande urged Israel and the Palestinians to make a "courageous choice for peace".

"Violence is growing and hope is fading – that's why we want to try and revive the peace process. We must work to realise that in the regional context and diplomatic vacuum will be filled by extremism and terror," he said.

"The only ones to benefit from the continuation of the status quo are the extremists who oppose peace. A peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians must include the countries of the region. Things have changed in recent years. Nowadays there's war in Syria and in Iraq and terror in the regions.

"There are those who interpret this as a chance to abandon the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but I claim the opposite," he added. 

However, after decades of failure souring negotiations, few believe the climate is right to bring the warring sides together for another shot at solving one of the world's longest-running conflicts. 

Organisers of the Paris meeting had tasked delegates with agreeing a date for an international peace conference, slated to take place by the end of the year, but with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new coalition with ultra-nationalists widely described as the most right-wing government in the country's history and the Palestinians still divided there are concerns are that no amount of international good will get the two sides to the negotiating table.

'Everything is blocked'

Neither Palestinian nor Israeli negotiating teams attended Friday's talks, although the UN, the EU and Arab League all sent representatives.

Speaking after the meeting, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that the prospects of a two-state solution were "getting further away each day".

"We must act, urgently, to preserve the two-state solution, revive it before it is too late," Ayrault said.

But French efforts to broker a new peace process have been dismissed in Israel, where a spokesperson for Netanyahu told Israeli radio on Friday that direct negotiations were needed "and for that we don’t need to go as far as Paris". 

Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold also told reporters on Thursday that the latest French initiative was similar to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which was drawn up by British and French bureaucrats, and divided up the former territories of the Ottoman Empire.

“One hundred years ago, two officials by the name of Mark Sykes and Francois-Georges Picot tried to dictate a new order in the Middle East,” Gold said. “It was at the apex of the era of colonialism in our area. It utterly failed then and will completely fail today.”

The Sykes-Picot agreement which created many states in the modern Middle East has been widely blamed for regional instability and the rise of sectarianism in places like Syria and Iraq.

“The only way to make peace is by means of direct negotiations without prior conditions with the full backing of the Arab states and not by means of a conference in Paris,” Gold said.

“If you have a conflict with your neighbour, you don’t go all the way to France and bring Senegal over to solve it. You talk directly to your neighbour,” he added.

According to diplomatic sources, the French proposal will push for a “clear timetable” and 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 Netanyahu said this week that he would be open to re-negotiating aspects of it with the Palestinians.

The new drive comes as violence which began in October continues to grip the West Bank and Israel.

The Palestinians have largely backed the French initiative and welcomed efforts to resume talks.

Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the effort brought "a flicker of hope" for a resolution to the conflict.

In an opinion piece in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Erekat, who is the Palestine Liberation Organisation secretary general, wrote that multilateral talks offered "a broader framework" than the moribund bilateral track.

"The French initiative is the flicker of hope Palestine has been waiting for and we are confident that it will provide a clear framework with defined parameters for the resumption of negotiations," he wrote in the piece, published late on Thursday night.

Better than nothing?

While scepticism over the new peace bid is high, consensus among European diplomats appears to be that any effort is better than none and that it is necessary to revive interest in the peace process that has slipped away as a diplomatic priority as other Middle Eastern crises such as the war in Syria have taken centre stage.

"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."

The US, however, have been less enthusiastic. US Secretary of State John Kerry said he agreed 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."

Washington has traditionally been the key mediator in the conflict but has failed to move the two sides toward a new peace process since talks collapsed in April 2014, and has been blamed by many for being too close to Israel.

But with no American efforts on the horizon and great doubt over who will be the next US president, European diplomats say they felt they simply had to go on the offensive.

"The fear in France is that there is no credible perspective of solving this issue, diplomatically or politically," a 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."

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