US skeptical of Netanyahu offer to directly negotiate with Palestinians

Netanyahu has said that an international effort led by France to outline a two-state solution circumvents the parties to the conflict themselves.

May 24, 2016 20:49
US President Barack Obama waves.

US President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at the Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)

The Obama administration responded with skepticism on Tuesday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in Paris, and to the PA’s rebuke of the offer.

Netanyahu said that an international effort led by France to outline a two-state solution circumvents the parties directly involved – an approach that he, as well as previous US administrations, has argued is counterproductive.

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But one senior State Department official questioned whether Netanyahu’s call for direct talks necessarily means he is willing to make peace.

“We of course support meaningful negotiations and we continue to believe that this conflict can only be resolved through direct negotiations between the parties,” the official told The Jerusalem Post, while adding: “We do not believe in negotiations just for the sake of negotiations.

“As we’ve said many times, it is up to the parties to decide if they are ready to make the tough decisions necessary for successful negotiations,” the official continued. “For our part, we continue to call on both sides to demonstrate with policies and actions a genuine commitment to a two-state solution.”

The two-part process is to begin in Paris on June 3 with a ministerial meeting of representatives from some 20 countries that will organize a larger peace conference in the fall to lay the ground work for the eventual renewal of direct talks.

Israelis and Palestinians have not been invited to the June 3 parley but will be asked to attend the fall summit.

At the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on Sunday, Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer warned international powers against moving forward without the participation of both Israel and the Palestinians.

“In a world of fiction, the leading powers of the world will gather together in Paris two weeks from now to help advance the peace process,” Dermer said. “In the world of fact, the leading powers of the world will unwittingly enable the Palestinians to continue avoiding negotiations.

“In a world of fiction, these powers will create a framework that will ultimately help Israelis and Palestinians make peace,” he continued. “In the world of fact, these powers, albeit with the best of intentions, will only encourage the Palestinians to continue their nearly 100-year-old campaign to destroy the one and only Jewish state.”

In Ramallah on Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah rejected Israel’s call for direct talks in Paris as he urged his French counterpart Manuel Valls to stand firm behind France’s internationalized peace process.

“When Netanyahu is talking about direct talks, negotiations and meeting the [Palestinian Authority] president he wants to buy more time,” Hamdallah told Valls when the two met in Ramallah.

“After 22 years of negotiations we did not achieve anything from the Israelis and we do not want this time to let Netanyahu escape from the [hands of] the international community,” Hamdallah said.

While Israel has spoken frequently against Palestinian incitement, Hamdallah told the French that he is concerned by Israeli hatred.

“This Israeli government has drifted further towards extremism and racism,” the Palestinian leader said.

“Its leaders incite and spew hatred against our people while expropriating our land and natural resources, and expanding illegal settlements,” he said as he described for Valls the harm caused to his people by Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank, including continued settlement construction.

Hamdallah’s spokesman said that during the meeting with Valls, the French premier spoke against continued Israelis settlement activity, which he said “weakens the prospect of the creation of a viable Palestinian state.”

“Palestine can count on the support of France,” Valls said. “Today, we have strengthened our cooperation, which was already strong, and we sincerely hope that this cooperation continues to develop.”

Valls wrapped up a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Tuesday after he visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and pledged support for a wastewater management project in Hebron. He also laid a wreath at the grave of former PA chairman Yasser Arafat.

In his Ramallah meeting with Hamdallah and his Jerusalem conversation with Netanyahu, Valls spoke of the new French initiative, which he hopes will jump-start the peace process, which has been frozen since April 2014.

Netanyahu opposes the two-part French initiative, which he believes will give the Palestinians an excuse to avoid direct talks on a two-state solution.

During his Monday meeting with Valls, Netanyahu urged his French counterpart to amend the initiative so that it instead becomes a platform for him and PA President Mahmoud Abbas to hold talks in Paris without preconditions.

“I’m ready to clear my schedule and fly to Paris tomorrow,” Netanyahu said, adding, “I will clear my calendar, and I hope that this is taken up by you and by the Palestinians.”

Valls said he would present Netanyahu’s proposal to French President Francois Hollande.

The Palestinians would like to see talks occur within internationally agreed upon parameters that set a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and a halt to settlement activity, including Jewish building in east Jerusalem. They are hoping that the two-phase French initiative would support those principles.

While in Ramallah, Valls spoke in support of his country’s initiative.

“We know that peace will be made by the two sides and that nothing can be imposed on them. But at the same time, today, there are no negotiations and the situation on the ground is catastrophic.

What’s needed is to get out of this status quo and this impasse.

“This approach, which is ours, is underpinned by significant international support because everyone sees the difficulties,” Valls said.

The United States on Monday said it prefers to see the Israelis and Palestinians sit down together and talk, but that it does not believe such negotiations are possible at this time.

“If they are willing [to talk], then certainly we are not going to stand in their way,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.

But he cautioned, “We believe that there’s got to be more groundwork laid before that process can go forward.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to attend the June 3 meeting.

“He wants to work with the French.

He wants to work with other partners in the coming days to ensure that this is as productive and constructive a process as possible,” Toner said.

As date nears for the launch of the French initiative, reports have repeatedly surfaced about a possible regional track, led by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

On Tuesday a Foreign Ministry delegation, led by its director for Middle East affairs, Aviva Raz Shechter, arrived in Cairo for a professional dialogue with their Egyptian counterparts.

Their arrival sparked speculation that they were speaking with the Egyptians about a trilateral summit between Netanyahu, Abbas and Sisi.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry flatly denied the report and said that it was a “routine dialogue” akin to what happens with other countries to strengthen bilateral ties.

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