French Prime Minister Manuel Valls arrived in Israel Saturday night to promote his country’s international peace initiative and to push for stronger economic ties with the Jewish state and with Palestinians.
As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council and a friend of both the Israelis and Palestinians, France has an important role to play here, Valls told Channel 2 in an interview taped in Paris prior to his arrival.
He will meet with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
In Israel, he will meet with the heads of start-up companies and visit the graves of the Jewish victims of last year’s terrorist attack at the Paris kosher market, Hypercacher. He also will visit the Yitzhak Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv, meet with members of the French Jewish community and speak with students at Tel Aviv University.
Israel is a friend of France, he told Channel 2, saying the visit is not just about politics and diplomacy, but also about strengthening cultural and economic ties between the two countries.
The visit was planned before the June 3 date was set for the launch of the French initiative, though the timing places diplomacy high on the trip’s agenda.
The Palestinians have welcomed the initiative, while Netanyahu, so far, has opposed it, fearing it would give the Palestinians an excuse to avoid direct talks with Israel. Netanyahu has said the Palestinians do not need a conference in Paris to open a dialogue between Ramallah and Jerusalem, given that the two cities are located right next to each other.
But the international community, including the United States, has come out in favor of the initiative, which will begin with a ministerial meeting of more than 20 countries.
The Israelis and Palestinians are not invited to that event, but will be asked to attend the larger conference in the fall, which is the second stage of the initiative.
Valls told Channel 2 the international community wants to see a two-state solution with recognizable and secure borders. Jerusalem will be the capital of both nations, he said.
While he said he appreciated Netanyahu’s position, Valls said the persistent calls for Abbas to return to the negotiating table had yet to bear fruit.
Direct talks in the current situation are very difficult, particularly given the continued settlement building and the violence that occurs almost every day, he said in the interview, adding that every effort must be made to jump-start the talks.
While the Israeli and Palestinians would be the primary beneficiaries of any peace deal, it would also contribute to regional and global stability, Valls concluded.
Separately, Isaac Herzog, Zionist Union head and lead opposition leader, revealed Saturday that both he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a number of discussions over the past several months concerning the so called “Arab Peace Initiative,” expressing his desire to move on favorable aspects of the plan that “would have undoubtedly changed the face of the region.”
During a cultural event in Kfar Saba, Herzog said he and the premier had “labored” over plans concerning a regional peace proposal initiated by Saudi Arabia, saying the two considered taking dramatic new steps to normalize relations with Israel’s traditionally hostile neighbors.
“With the launching of a proposed regional peace process, myself, the prime minister and international officials labored over terms” that would have laid out “very favorable conditions toward Israel,” Herzog said during the event.
“The [initiative] would have led to opening up negotiations with the Arab world and undoubtedly change the face of the region,” he added.
The Arab Peace Plan is a Saudi- led proposal constituted in 2002 that calls for a two-state solution on the pre-1967 lines with a just settlement for Palestinian refugees. In exchange, the Arab world would offer Israel normalized relations.
According to a Channel 10 report Friday evening, moderate Sunni governments in the region have communicated to Netanyahu their willingness to engage in negotiations with Israel over possible changes to the Saudi peace initiative so it may serve as the agreed-upon basis of renewed talks with the Palestinians.
The plan possibly would have been enacted on the condition Herzog and his Zionist Union faction join the Netanyahu led coalition.
But Thursday saw a dramatic shakeup within the political echelon, with the pending admission of right-wing nationalist party Yisrael Beytenu into the government with party chairman Avigdor Liberman taking over the Defense Ministry following the abrupt resignation of Moshe Ya’alon on Friday.
It now remains to be seen how these events will affect the Arab peace proposal and whether Netanyahu will continue without Herzog.
Negotiations between Herzog and Netanyahu have ruffled feathers among Zionist Union MKs, who object to joining forces with the premier. As a result, grumbling about a change in leadership has started to emerge from within the party.
Last week, Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir called on Herzog to resign, saying in a post on social media that Netanyahu had “used Herzog to bring Liberman into the government.”
In response, Herzog said he had no intention of “going home” and pointed his finger at a number of MKs within his faction who, he said, were provoking dissent “I have no intention of giving pleasure to those who call for my resignation, such as [Zionist Union MK] Shelly Yacimovich... and others,” Herzog said.
Yacimovich is the former head of Labor and Herzog’s biggest political rival inside the Zionist Union.
Before talks broke down, Herzog said the negotiations had been worthwhile and led to number of key agreements between himself and the prime minister, including key ministerial positions and policy demands.
“I did not crawl or subjugate myself. If I had, I would have joined the coalition long ago,” Herzog said. “I received the Defense portfolio and the Foreign Ministry portfolio, plus a construction freeze.”
“They say not to talk with Netanyahu because he is unreliable,” Herzog continued. “But there is a group they are willing to talk to and that’s Hamas leadership, but they will not talk with the Israeli prime minister, and I disagree with that.”
According to Channel 10, officials in Arab capitals are awaiting Netanyahu’s response to their offer of substantive discussions on the Saudi initiative so as to make it more palatable for Israel.