Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the French Middle East peace initiative on Wednesday, as well as the countries whose foreign ministers will be attending the conference being convened in Paris on Friday to address the diplomatic stalemate in relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
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"The path to peace is not via international conferences that attempt to force a settlement, that make the Palestinian demands more extreme and in the process distance peace," the prime minister said. "If the countries gathering this week in Paris really want to advance peace, they should join my call to Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] to come to such direct negotiations. That's the path to peace. There is no other way."
Netanyahu added that he is not ceasing efforts to find ways to advance the peace process, including using the assistance of other countries in the region. "The path to peace is via direct negotiations and without preconditions between the parties. That's how it was in the past when we achieved peace with Egypt and also with Jordan and that's how it needs to be with the Palestinians," he said.
The gathering in Paris on Friday will be attended by the foreign ministers of 29 countries from around the world, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. A senior Israeli official noted that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond have decided not to attend the meeting and are sending more junior representatives. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is in all probability also not expected to attend, sending one of his deputies instead, the Israeli official said.
The meeting will be opened by French President Francois Hollande, who is planning to give a political speech before the representatives of participating countries and will then hold a work meeting scheduled to last for three hours. The conference, to be held without the presence of Israeli and Palestinian representatives, will serve as an introduction to the international peace conference that France aims to convene before the end of 2016 with the participation of both sides.
On Thursday, preliminary meetings will be held in Paris attended by senior diplomats from the participating countries where an agenda will be decided upon for the meeting of foreign ministers on Friday, and the text of the closing statement.
On Tuesday, a Haaretz exclusive revealed a preparatory document distributed by the French government to foreign ministers participating in the conference. In the document, the French expressed interest in reaching an international consensus during the foreign ministers' meeting, on the parameters of which all Israeli-Palestinian direct negotiations would be based in the future. The document also revealed that France wants negotiations to take place within a limited time frame, managed by rigid deadlines for each phase of the talks.
According to the document, France also plans to create working teams at the conference on Friday, to deal with several issues. Each team would be led by one of the countries participating in the proposal. One team would make recommendations for steps that Israel, the Palestinians and other countries in the region can take in the short term, before the international conference, in order to keep the two-state solution on the table and prevent another escalation. Another team to formulate economic incentives for both sides and yet another would deal with security and regional cooperation.
The senior Israeli official noted that it remains unclear whether the French will succeed in reaching a consensus among participating countries regarding the goals described in the preparatory document. An Israeli official said that the U.S. administration has reservations regarding most of the goals laid out by the French, particularly the definition of a strict schedule for negotiations and the establishment of set international principles for solving core issues. According to the official, the Americans may agree to the French proposal to create work teams to handle separate issues.