French FM to Meet With Netanyahu in Attempt to Advance Peace Summit

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French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault poses in his office in Paris, France, April 26, 2016.
French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault poses in his office in Paris, France, April 26, 2016.Credit: Philippe Wojazer, Reuters

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Sunday to discuss the French proposal for an international peace conference on the Middle East that is causing considerable tension between Jerusalem and Paris.

Netanyahu is expected to harshly criticize the plan at his meeting with Ayrault, while the visiting minister will try to persuade him not to reject it out of hand.

Three weeks ago, the French government sent invitations to more than 20 foreign ministers for a meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian representatives were invited to the meeting, which was called for May 30.

The meeting’s purpose is to discuss the international peace conference that France wants to host in late 2016. France wants the foreign ministers to set an agenda for the conference and lay down on principles for a resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In recent weeks, French officials have held talks with all the countries invited to the meeting in an effort to ensure that their foreign ministers attend, with a special emphasis on the United States and Russia. Having U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov there would make the gathering far more serious and significant, whereas their absence would be a harsh blow to the French. So far, however, neither man has confirmed his attendance.

Kerry was in Paris on Monday to meet with Ayrault, and France’s peace initiative was one of the main topics of discussion. Senior Israeli officials briefed on their conversation said Kerry told Ayrault that if the foreign ministers’ meeting were postponed for a few days and the French made some changes in their proposal, Kerry would be more inclined to attend. Ayrault said he was open to making those changes but would have to get approval from French President Francois Hollande, the officials added.

On Thursday, Kerry spoke by phone with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. According to the official Palestinian news agency, Abbas told Kerry that he supports the French initiative and urged Washington to support it as well.

A senior American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity refused to disclose details, saying only that Kerry has been discussing the French proposal with French officials and other relevant parties, but hasn’t yet decided whether or not to attend the foreign ministers’ meeting.

Ayrault is scheduled to arrive in Israel Saturday night. He will meet with Netanyahu on Sunday morning before going to Ramallah in the afternoon to meet with Abbas. Ayrault will leave Israel Sunday evening.

Though Netanyahu has stated publicly that he rejects the French initiative, French diplomats said Ayrault wants to hear Netanyahu’s views in person.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has spoken out vehemently against the French government and its peace initiative during meetings with other European foreign ministers. Senior officials briefed on these meetings said Netanyahu was particularly outraged by the fact that France voted for a recent Unesco resolution that cast doubt on Jewish ties to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

“How can they not be ashamed of themselves?” one official quoted Netanyahu as saying. “With a vote like that, they want me to come to a peace conference in Paris and believe that it will be balanced, fair and objective?”

The French claim that they voted for the resolution only in order to persuade the Palestinians to freeze their efforts to get the UN Security Council to pass a resolution against the settlements.

Over the past few days, fierce criticism of that vote has been heard in France as well, including from members of the French government. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who will visit Israel in 10 days’ time, said on Wednesday that the UNESCO resolution was “unfortunate” and should have been avoided. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said at a meeting with leaders of the French Jewish community that France shouldn’t have voted for the resolution.

At a reception for foreign ambassadors held at the President’s Residence in honor of Israeli Independence day, Netanyahu said that contrary to what many in the international community believe, he has not backtracked on his commitment to a two-state solution. He said he is willing to meet Abbas anywhere, anytime, but Abbas keeps refusing. He also stressed that direct talks are the only way to achieve a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.