Visit from French minister does little to sway Israel on peace talks

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault made a personal appeal to Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Sunday to reconsider taking part in international peace talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Netanyahu, unmoved by the entreaty, said Israel remains opposed to the French initiative to hold an international conference in the coming months.

The Palestinians have welcomed the French effort, but Israel is concerned it will be faced with foreign dictates.

Before stepping down earlier this year, France's former foreign minister Laurent Fabius said France would recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem if the conference and efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks fail.

That pledge removes incentives for the Palestinians to compromise, Israel charges.

"I told him that the only way to advance a true peace between us and the Palestinians is by means of direct negotiations between us and them, without preconditions," Netanyahu said after their meeting.

He also slammed France's support of a UNESCO decision that did not recognize the Jewish people's ties to a disputed Jerusalem holy site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Ayrault told the Israeli premier that the French vote had stemmed from a "misunderstanding" that would not happen again, Netanyahu said.

But the saga "casts a shadow on the fairness of any forum that France tries to convene," Netanyahu told his cabinet in Jerusalem. 

Later, in the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah, Ayrault met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who "expressed his great appreciation for France's commitment and its efforts to hold the conference."

Abbas' spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, criticized Netanyahu for dooming the French initiative to failure.

The Palestinians have said they no longer believe in direct bilateral negotiations and instead want a multi-lateral format, similar to the international nuclear talks held with Iran.

Indefinite bilateral negotiations only grant Israel legitimacy, as the country continues expanding settlements, they charge.

The Palestinians have named a settlement freeze as a condition for the revival of direct bilateral talks, which collapsed two years ago.

Sirens wailed for 68 seconds in Palestinian cities at noon Sunday, marking 68 years since hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees in the war that erupted when Israel was founded.

Israel declared statehood on May 14, 1948. On May 15, British forces departed and neighbouring Arab armies invaded the nascent state.  

Palestinians mourn the destruction of at least 436 Palestinian villages as their "Nakba" (catastrophe) each May 15. 

A top aide to Abbas, Saeb Erekat, in an article in the Israeli Haaretz broadsheet, called on Israel to recognize the Palestinian disaster. He accused Israelis of being "Nakba deniers."

Israel says that most Palestinians fled the 1948-49 war, while Palestinians charge Israel with expelling them.

Last update: Sun, 15/05/2016 - 17:11

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