Abbas Welcomes French Plan for International Middle East Peace Conference

Palestinian president vows not to resume negotiations for the sake of negotiations. Hamas joins Israel in rejecting French initiative as 'unacceptable and unhelpful.'

Mahmoud Abbas in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 30, 2016.
Reuters

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Saturday that he welcomes a French initiative to jumpstart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians through the convening of an international peace conference. 

The Palestinian Authority head, speaking at a summit of African countries in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, called on African nations to support the French initiative. Vowing not to return to the negotiating table with Israel simply for the sake of negotiations, he said the Palestinians will not be unilaterally bound to their agreements with Israel and will not agree to temporary or interim measures. 

On Friday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced his country's intention to convene a peace conference in the coming weeks and said if the initiative fails, France would recognize a Palestinian state. Israel rejected the idea of such a peace conference, with a senior official in Jerusalem saying the threat to recognize Palestine only encourages Palestinians not to negotiate.

A White House spokesman also expressed reservations about the French proposal, saying that it is the American position that direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are the preferred approach to achieving a permanent solution to the conflict. Senior officials in Washington said they refuse to speculate regarding the French peace conference proposal.

For its own reasons, the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, rejected the French initiative. "All of the diplomatic calls for a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are unacceptable and unhelpful," said Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas official.

The new effort to restart peace talks may be the last that Fabius makes before leaving his post as foreign minister in a few months' time. Since the failure of U.S.-brokered peace talks in 2014, Fabius has tried to push for international efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but this attempts have not borne fruit.

At a Saturday morning program in Neveh Monosson east of Tel Aviv, Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid said Israel would not go into negotiations "under threat." Lapid added, however, that France's declaration that it would recognize Palestine if talks fall through reflects a serious deterioration in Israel's international standing. "In the past, no member of the United Nations Security Council would have announced that it would unilaterally recognize the Palestinians without asking us first," apparently referring to the permanent members of the Security Council, which includes France.

For her part, Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon said that "[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's decision to reject the French initiative is evidence that all of his talk about a commitment to a two-state solution is nothing more than lip service and lies." Speaking Saturday at an event in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, she added that "Netanyahu may be excellent in identifying threats, but he's very bad at identifying opportunities and finding solutions."

The French foreign minister made his comments on Friday in Paris to a gathering of French ambassadors posted around the world. Noting that Israeli West Bank settlement construction was continuing, he said: "We cannot allow the two-state solution to die. This is our responsibility as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council."

France is interested in the participation in the conference of Israelis and Palestinians as well as other parties, such as the United States, European countries and Arab states, Fabius said. "The aim is to preserve and achieve a two-state solution," he said. "If this last attempt to achieve a solution through negotiations reaches a dead end, we will have to take responsibility and recognize a Palestinian state."

Former Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, secretary of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the Palestinians welcome the French initiative "to promote serious international involvement with the goal of ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967." The Palestinians will be in contact with the French and other countries in the near future to advance plans for such a conference, Erekat said, based on international law and the resolutions of the UN.

Last week, Israel expressed concern over the possibility that the French foreign minister would seek to take steps at the UN Security Council on the Palestinian issue. Senior Israeli diplomats who have visited Paris this month said the message they received from senior French Foreign Ministry officials was that no decision had yet been taken over a possible resolution before the Security Council on the subject of Israel's West Bank settlements or regarding principles for a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. On the other hand, the French added a provision to a resolution by European Union foreign ministers adopted about a month ago that states that action in the Security Council will be explored. 

With reporting by Barak Ravid.