France Plays Down Paris Middle East Peace Talks Prospects

PARIS (Reuters) -
French President Francois Hollande (R) welcomes Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the Elysee Palace in 2015. (Reuters/Philippe Wojazer)

French President François Hollande sought to play down the prospects of Middle East peace talks in Paris on Sunday, saying only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians could resolve the longstanding conflict.

France has over the last year tried to breathe new life into the peace process, holding a preliminary conference in June where the United Nations, European Union, United States and major Arab countries gathered to try to revive moribund talks.

Some 72 countries and organizations are due in Paris for a meeting that  Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has rejected as “futile.”

Hollande, giving his last speech to the foreign diplomatic corps before stepping down in May, said the objective was to reaffirm the support of the international community for a two-state solution and ensure that it remained a reference.

“I can see that this has been weakened on the ground and in the minds. If we let it wither away then it would be a risk for Israeli’s security to which we are resolutely attached.

“However, I am realistic on what this conference can achieve. Peace will only be done by the Israelis and Palestinians and by nobody else. Only bilateral negotiations can succeed.”

France, which had invited Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to meet Hollande to discuss the results of the conference, believes that with uncertainty surrounding how the next U.S. administration will handle the issue, it is important to push the sides back to talks. Abbas is due in Paris on Sunday, although a meeting with Hollande has yet to be confirmed.

A draft communiqué for the meeting seen by Reuters calls on both sides to “restate their commitment to the two-state solution and to disavow official voices on their side that reject this solution.

It also asks the protagonists to “refrain from unilateral steps that prejudge the outcome of final status negotiations in order to rebuild trust and create a path back to meaningful direct negotiations.”

Netanyahu said in public remarks on Thursday, “It’s a rigged conference, rigged by the Palestinians with French auspices to adopt additional anti-Israel stances. This pushes peace backwards.

“It’s not going to obligate us. It’s a relic of the past, it’s a last gasp of the past before the future sets in.”