French minister bids to revive Middle East talks

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 02, 2011 1:54 PM
French minister bids to revive Middle East talks

By Crispian Balmer

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe made a last-ditch effort on Thursday to revive peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians before a likely showdown at the United Nations in September.

U.S.-brokered talks collapsed last year in a dispute over Jewish settlement building, and the Palestinians say that unless there is a breakthrough, they will seek U.N. recognition of statehood in September -- a step Israel strongly opposes.

"We are convinced that if nothing happens here between now and September the situation will be very difficult for everyone at the time of the United Nations General Assembly," Juppe said after meeting Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The foreign minister said he hoped both sides would meet in Paris at the end of June or in early July for talks based on proposals put forward last month by President Barack Obama.

"I would be lying if I said I was very optimistic. I am slightly optimistic," Juppe said later after seeing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, adding that the two sides would reply to his invitation "in the coming days."

Obama has suggested initial talks should focus on borders and security, using frontiers that existed before the 1967 war as a starting point. The barbed issues of the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to modern-day Israel would be put off until a later date.

Netanyahu has already dismissed the idea that the 1967 lines could form the basis for a deal, saying they were indefensible.

Israeli officials also oppose the idea of splitting any future talks into two parts, arguing that their strongest negotiating hand is tied to land, meaning that all the key issues will have to be decided in a single moment.

U.N. OPTION

Juppe met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Rome on Wednesday to discuss a Paris summit, but declined to say whether Abbas had accepted the idea of talks without further conditions.

Abbas walked away from negotiations last year in protest at a renewal of Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank -- land the Palestinians want for their future state.

He had insisted the construction must stop if he is to return to talks, but appears to have modified his stance.

"The Israeli government's acceptance of the principle that President Obama laid out, that the peace process must lead to two states on the 1967 borders, (would represent) a door for the resumption of negotiations," Abbas told Reuters on Wednesday.

Given the lengthy impasse on talks, the Palestinians have focused their attention on winning a unilateral declaration of independence backed by the United Nations.

Israel fears such a move would leave it isolated and the United States has already said it opposes the plan -- a position which could kill off the initiative in the U.N. Security Council before it can reach the General Assembly.

France, which is also one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, has not yet decided whether to back the Palestinians, should peace talks not materialize, Juppe said.

However, he warned that a U.N. vote would not alter the lives of ordinary Palestinians and said everyone would lose out.

"We have to avoid such a situation and the only way to avoid it is to do what we are proposing, that's to say return to the (negotiating) table," Juppe said.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Tom Perry; editing by Alistair Lyon)