Israelis Angling to Preempt Paris Conference

YERUSHALAYIM -

Israeli diplomats have been working behind the scenes with Egypt to create an alternative to the French peace initiative.

An Israeli delegation went secretly to Cairo on Sunday to try to arrange a meeting between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, The Jerusalem Post reported on Tuesday, citing the Palestinian news agency Ma’an.

The mission was in line with Israel’s refusal to support an upcoming conference of foreign ministers from over 20 countries in Paris to restart the peace process, insisting that only direct negotiations with the Palestinians will yield the desired results.

The delegation, led by Aviva Raz Shechter, the director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Division, was said to include a number of high-ranking officials from the Foreign Ministry and the security establishment.

On Tuesday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah sought to reverse the argument, accusing Netanyahu of opposing the French initiative to avoid serious talks.

“When Netanyahu is talking about direct talks, negotiations, and meeting the (Palestinian Authority) president, he wants to buy more time,” Hamdallah said in Ramallah on Tuesday at a meeting with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Hamdallah dismissed a call by Netanyahu on Monday for the immediate resumption of direct talks in Paris in a French-led process. The PA has welcomed the French-sponsored conference set for June 3.

During his visit to Ramallah, Valls defended his country’s initiative.

“We know that peace will be made by the two sides and that nothing can be imposed on them. But at the same time, today, there are no negotiations and the situation on the ground is catastrophic. What’s needed is to get out of this status quo and this impasse.

“This approach, which is ours, is underpinned by significant international support because everyone sees the difficulties,” Valls said.

The United States on Monday said it preferred direct talks, but conceded that it was not in the offing at the moment, and did not oppose the French effort.

“If they are willing [to talk], then certainly we are not going to stand in their way,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.

But, he cautioned, “We believe that there’s got to be more groundwork laid before that process can go forward.

“We don’t want to see negotiations for the sake of negotiations. We want a clear path forward, and we need [to] set the right climate or right environment for those negotiations to proceed,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is slated to attend the June 3 meeting.

“He wants to work with the French. He wants to work with other partners in the coming days to ensure that this is as productive and constructive a process as possible,” Toner said.