Israeli PM calls Middle East peace talks in Paris ‘rigged’
PARIS – Sending a forceful message to Israel’s prime minister and the incoming Donald Trump administration, dozens of countries called Sunday on Israel and the Palestinians to revive work toward long-elusive peace — including an independent Palestinian state.
The closing declaration at a Mideast peace conference in Paris urged both sides to “officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution” and disassociate from voices that reject this. It also warned them against taking one-sided actions that could hurt talks, an apparent reference to Israeli settlement building.
While the Palestinians welcomed Sunday’s declaration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the conference “rigged” and cooked up behind Israel’s back to force it to accept conditions against national interests.
The French organizers argued the conference was necessary to keep hopes alive for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians — the solution favoured by the international community for the past two decades.
Many members of Netanyahu’s coalition want to abandon the two-state solution and expand settlements, and some have even called for annexing parts of the West Bank. Trump’s campaign platform made no mention of Palestinian independence.
In a nod to Israel, the final declaration of Sunday’s conference included criticism of incitement and “terror,” a reference to Palestinian attacks. And some of the pro-Palestinian language in an earlier draft was removed after diplomats huddled in Paris.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been increasingly critical of Netanyahu, represented the U.S. at the talks and defended the effort.
He rejected Israeli criticism of the conference, saying the concept of a two-state solution to the conflict is “threatened” and must be reinforced if it is ever to happen. The communique, he said, endorses that without imposing a resolution.
“Given where things are going and what is happening, that is particularly important,” he said.
He also warned that it’s too early to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem, as proposed by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. “This is not the right time,” he said. “We think it’s ill-advised.”
Trump’s administration did not take part in the meeting and didn’t immediately comment on its final statement.
While Netanyahu has voiced support for a two-state solution, his critics, including Kerry, have said that continued settlement construction on occupied territories raises questions about his commitment to pursuing a peace deal.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon dismissed Sunday’s conference, tweeting that it was “flat as a failed soufflé.”
“A big show is no replacement for direct negotiations between the parties,” he said.
French President Francois Hollande agreed on the need for direct talks. “It is not a question of dictating to the parties … Only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can lead to peace. No one will do it in their place,” he said.
“The world cannot, should not resign itself to the status quo,” Hollande told the gathered diplomats from across Europe, the Mideast and other regions, as well as from the United Nations, the Arab League and other international organizations.
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Hollande said he was sounding an “alert” that peace talks should be revived before violent extremists and Israeli settlements destroy any hope of a two-state solution. Hollande urged the diplomats to support peace efforts by offering economic incentives to Israelis and Palestinians.
The chief Palestinian representative to France warned the Trump administration not to “underestimate” the message of peace sent by the conference, or the U.N. resolution last month condemning Israel’s construction of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Salman Elherfi, speaking to The Associated Press, insisted “the option of two states is not the dream of a single country, but it has become the concern of the whole world to protect it.”
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.
France and others expressed concern that the Trump administration could unleash new tensions in the region by condoning settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians and moving the U.S. Embassy. The embassy issue wasn’t mentioned, however, in the final declaration.
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.
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,” said Serge Klarsfeld, a well-known French Nazi hunter. “If it existed and if the Arab world recognized the existence of Israel, we would find the means to solve all the problems very quickly.”
Associated Press writers Josef Federman, Aron Heller and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, and Philippe Sotto and Alex Turnbull in Paris contributed to this report.
© 2017 The Canadian Press