Diplomats from nearly 30 countries were meeting in Paris on Friday to begin talks on peace in the Middle East
French President Francois Hollande said at the start of the talks that it was particularly important to find a peace agreement in the context of widespread extremism and conflict, a little more than two years after the last bid to broker a long-lasting truce collapsed.
"In the context of the Middle East, vacuums will necessarily be filled by extremists, and terrorists can also gain a foothold," Hollande said. He added that a peace process can only move forward with the support of the region's neighbours, but it would ultimately rely on the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps toward peace.
The French-led effort has been blasted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said that direct negotiations without preconditions are the only way to move forward in a conflict that has been the subject of repeated peace deal attempts over the decades.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has called for parameters like a stricter timetable for the implementation of any agreements.
He also expressed scepticism about the outcome of direct bilateral talks with Israel. "We have been talking with the Israelis for 20 years and nothing has been achieved," Hamdallah said last month.
Yet observers have expressed tentative optimism about the latest efforts spearheaded by the French, if only because the aims have been kept so modest.
Diplomats at the French Foreign Ministry have said the goal is simply to begin a process that will bring everyone back to the table by the end of the year, underscoring that the role of France is only as a facilitator. The diplomats were not authorized to be named.
Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who travelled recently to meet with Netanyahu and Palestinian leaders, has also stressed the "disinterested" position of France, while saying that the deteriorating security situation puts the prospect of peace further at risk.
Speaking to newspaper Le Monde on the eve of the talks, Ayrault said he hopes for two outcomes of Friday's conference: a confirmation of the perspective of getting all parties to the table before the end of the year, and the launch of working groups.
"The two-state solution, one Israeli state and one Palestinian state, living side by side, in peace and security, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, that has always been the position of France," Ayrault told Le Monde.
Palestinians have launched scores of deadly knife attacks against Israelis since October, protesting the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as perceived violations - denied by Israel - at a disputed Jerusalem holy site.
UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon attended Friday's meeting, alongside US Secretary of State John Kerry, Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Araby, the European Union's top diplomat Federica Mogherini and representatives from all member countries of the UN Security Council as well as European, Arab, African and Asian countries.
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