French President Francois Hollande on Monday recommended that the Palestinian leadership show flexibility on the issue of the 1948 refugees’ “right of return,” and in exchange demand a halt to construction in the West Bank settlements as a way to make progress in the diplomatic talks.
Hollande, who met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Mukata government compound in Ramallah, reiterated the French policy that Israeli construction in the West Bank should be frozen because the settlements are an obstacle to moving the process forward. However, he also told Abbas that during his conversations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the premier cited the refugee issue as one that was liable to make it difficult for the two sides to reach an agreement.
“France opposes the settlements,” Hollande told a joint press conference after the meeting with Abbas. “Construction in the settlements must be stopped because it will make it more difficult to achieve a two-state solution and get the two sides back to the negotiating table. When I speak of the initiatives that the two sides must present, I spoke with President Abbas and told him to reach understandings on this issue [the refugees]. This was the focus of part of our discussion.”
Palestinian sources told Haaretz that while this seems like a French attempt to get the sides to make concessions on two core issues, at this stage no agreements should be expected. Abbas, for his part, said the Palestinians cannot present a position that differs from the position that was approved by the Arab League, known as the Arab Initiative, and which also has UN Security Council backing.
“There are five million Palestinian refugees for whom we must find a solution, and the Arab Initiative speaks in the most clear terms of a ‘just and agreed-upon’ solution,” Abbas said. “We are prepared to sit and discuss a just and agreed-upon solution if the Israeli government is prepared to do so. At the same time, we’ve made it clear that all the settlements are illegitimate.”
During the press conference, Hollande clarified France’s position, speaking of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines with agreed-upon exchanges of territories and Jerusalem as the joint capital of both states. He described Netanyahu’s decision to freeze Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s plan for more than 20,000 homes in the territories as encouraging.
Abbas meanwhile reaffirmed the Palestinian Authority's commitment to the peace talks. The PA, he said, will continue to engage in negotiations with Israel until the end of the agreed-upon nine-month period, in accordance to its commitment to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
He said that the Palestinian leadership had not yet discussed whether to accept the resignations of the PA's senior negotiators, Saeb Erekat or Mohammed Shtayyeh. The envoys were not present at the press conference, nor did they attend the Abbas-Hollande meeting, even though at least one of them, and usually both, had always taken pains to be present at meetings with world leaders.
During their meeting, the two parties signed agreements stipulating that the French government will transfer 19 million euros to the PA. The funds will be allocated toward the advancement of various projects, including the construction of Rawabi (the new city being built west of Ramallah) and the construction of a new school in Ramallah. An additional three million euros will go toward energy-related projects.
Prior to the meeting, Hollande and Abbas visited the gravesite of the late PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, where Hollande laid a wreath. On Sunday, the French leader met with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem.
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