Ahead of Paris Summit, Israel Sees Egypt's Regional Initiative as Preferable to French Peace Plan

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French Foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak to journalists before a meeting in Paris, Monday, May 9, 2016.
French Foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak to journalists before a meeting in Paris, Monday, May 9, 2016. Credit: Christophe Ena, AP

The foreign ministers of 29 countries will convene on Friday in Paris to debate the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and will try to agree on a date for an international peace conference to take place by the end of the year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held on Thursday night a political-informational consultation ahead of the event, at the end of which Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold held a press conference in which he compared the French peace initiative to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided up the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. He stressed that any effort by the international community to impose a solution would fail.

“One hundred years ago, two officials by the name of Mark Sykes and Francois-Georges Picot tried to dictate a new order in the Middle East,” Gold said. “It was at the apex of the era of colonialism in our area. It utterly failed then and will completely fail today. The only way to make peace is by means of direct negotiations without prior conditions with the full backing of the Arab states and not by means of a conference in Paris. If you have a conflict with your neighbor you don’t go all the way to France and bring Senegal over to solve it. You talk directly to your neighbor.”

The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 was a secret agreement in which France and Great Britain carved out areas of influence in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The pact was the basis for drawing the borders of what years later became Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and the British Mandate region in the Land of Israel. In recent years, the Syrian civil war and the Islamic State’s seizure of vast areas in Syria and Iraq have undermined parts of the regional order created by that agreement.

At the meeting Netanyahu convened, attended by Foreign Ministry officials, National Security Council members and the public diplomacy staff, it was decided to try to make a last-minute effort to pressure some of the participating countries to make sure that no significant decisions would emerge from the foreign ministers’ conference. These decisions include defining a firm timetable for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and ensuring that no support would be given or even declared by the UN Security Council for any process launched at the event.

Another decision made at the meeting was that Israel would make it clear, both publicly and through diplomatic channels, that it prefers the regional initiative proposed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi over the French initiative. A senior Israeli official said that Jerusalem believes the regional effort has a much greater chance of success than the French peace initiative.

Gold addressed this issue during his press conference. “We believe that the Arab states have the ability to influence the Palestinians to conduct serious and direct negotiations, and that’s why we prefer to have the Arab states influence them rather than have them think of creating an alternative to a direct dialogue between us and our neighbors,” he said.

“International conferences of the type that will take place in Paris give the Palestinians an escape route from direct negotiations with us. We’ve been through that and seen that. They must be brought back to sit face to face with Israeli diplomats. That’s our aspiration. We are not fleeing negotiations with them; they’re running from negotiating with us.

“The French recognize the power of international consensus,” Gold continued. “If the international community will state clearly that the objective is direct negotiations and not some detour, there’s a chance it will happen.”

The Paris conclave is scheduled to begin at 10 A.M. Israel time. After a group photo, French President Francois Hollande will deliver a diplomatic address in which he will present the objectives of the French peace initiative. Hollande is expected to stress that the two-state solution is in danger, which is why there must be an international apparatus established to facilitate the renewal of the peace process.

The foreign ministers’ meeting will last only three hours. Every foreign minister will be given a chance to make a short statement. Afterward, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will hold a press conference and the event’s summary statement will be released.

The two big questions are whether the communiqué will include a timetable for convening an international peace conference, and whether it will establish working groups to deal with various issues, each to be headed by a different country participating in the initiative.

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