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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced his support for a 14-year-old Arab peace plan in an apparent snub of a French-led international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to start this week.
Paris on Friday will host more than 20 foreign ministers, as well as United Nations and European Union diplomats, in what will be the first effort to revive peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in two years.
Netanyahu rejected the new French push for a multilateral conference as soon as it was announced, repeating a longstanding offer to hold direct talks with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. On Monday the Israeli premier went a step further in shifting attention away from the conference by saying a 2002 Saudi peace initiative had “positive elements” worth exploring.
“Israel will do anything to derail the French initiative,” Professor Yossi Mekelberg, a Mideast peace expert at the London-based Chatham House thinktank, told FRANCE 24. “They don’t feel comfortable with France leading talks.”
Friday’s conference purposely excludes Israeli and Palestinian representatives. Instead, it will focus on laying the groundwork for comprehensive peace talks that would bring together the long-time foes in the autumn.
Forum ‘favourable’ to Palestinians
Mekelberg said the Israeli government has always been sceptical of international forums where they “felt outnumbered”.
In contrast, he said Palestinians are very enthusiastic. “They feel empowered by [the] international setting. Despite their internal divisions, they believe they will find sympathy among the participating countries,” he said.
“They also like the idea of being in an environment where they will not only deal with the United States, who they don’t see as an honest broker,” noted Mekelberg. “They want more countries to become involved.”
Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Jerusalem, agreed that Israel views the Paris conference as dealing with a stacked deck.
“Netanyahu is concerned that French and international involvement will make negotiations more favourable to Palestinians, because on some final-status issues the international position is closer to the position of the [Palestinians] and closer to international law – for example, on the questions of where to draw borders and of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem,” he told FRANCE 24.
Zalzberg said the Israeli government was also resisting the French initiative for fear it would encourage further multilateral actions down the road, namely the recognition of Palestinian statehood by European countries. In a non-binding vote in 2014, France’s National Assembly (lower house) approved a measure recognising the Palestinian Territories as a state, following similar moves in Britain and Spain.
“Netanyahu continues to see a separate Palestinian state as a security threat against Israel, as a place from which groups like Hamas or Iran could launch rocket attacks,” said Zalzberg.
“Ultimately he would like a two-state solution, but he envisions a Palestinian state that is much smaller. He doesn’t see the conditions for that result now,” Zalzberg added.
‘Not ready to negotiate peace’
Chatham House’s Mekelberg said it was interesting that Netanyahu has dusted off the 2002 Arab proposal, which the expert described as a “golden opportunity” that was missed by late Israeli premier Ariel Sharon at the height of the second Palestinian Intifada.
Under that plan, Arab states offered normalised relations with Israel in return for a full withdrawal from occupied territory where Palestinians seek statehood.
Mekelberg nevertheless questioned the authenticity of Netanyahu’s interest in achieving a sustainable peace with the Palestinians.
“If there is any sign that Israel is not ready to negotiate peace at the moment, it is in the appointment of [Avigdor] Lieberman as defence minister,” he said, in reference to the Israeli hard-liner taking over the key post on Monday.
“Lieberman is a settler, with a history of saying some of the most horrible things about settlements and the occupation,” Mekelberg noted.
“I have not seen any indication that Netanyahu is ready to negotiate in good faith or ready to fulfill even the minimum requirements of the other side,” he said, adding that public opinion polls indicate Israelis are unprepared to accept the painful concessions that would be needed to reach a peace deal.
While they may be in the minority, a vocal group of Israelis is nevertheless rooting for the French peace conference.
On Wednesday, the International Forum for Peace coordinated a meeting between Abbas and a delegation of prominent Israelis. The group included four former Israeli ambassadors to France, singers Noa and Mira Awad, and filmmaker Amos Gitaï.
“We’re here to show our support for the French initiative,” the Forum’s president, Ofer Bronchtein, told FRANCE 24 by telephone. “We’re here to show that a two-state solution is possible.”
Asked about the real chances of bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the peace table in Paris later this year, Brochtein said he remained hopeful.
“Anyway, there is no alternative.”