Israelis appear to have lost their desire for peace, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner declared on Tuesday, a day ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
"Before, there was a great peace movement" among Israelis, Kouchner told France-Inter radio. "It seems to me that this aspiration has disappeared."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said in response, "If he really thinks that Israelis have given up hope, which is arguable, than he should not evade the question of why - what disappointed them so."
Despite Kouchner's words, Netanyahu has made several public statements in the last few weeks in which he has said that Israel is willing to restart peace talks with the Palestinians immediately.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, he will meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and underscore the point that Israel is willing to go a long way to achieve peace. Netanyahu comes to Paris from the US, where he met with President Barack Obama on Monday night.
The Palestinians have insisted that they will not talk with Israel until it freezes all construction in the settlements and in east Jerusalem. Israel has agreed to curb settlement construction, but not completely, and insists that it will not accept preconditions for the talks. The US has accepted this stance (although it would like the settlement construction to end), but France has not.
Kouchner said on Tuesday that "a freeze in settlements... while we are talking, is absolutely indispensable."
Last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rendered the prospects of new talks more problematic when he announced that he did not intend to seek reelection in the vote he had called for January 24.
In the aftermath of Netanyahu's visit, Syrian President Bashar Assad plans to head to Paris later this week. Kouchner plans to visit Israel next Tuesday and Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Sarkozy telephoned Abbas and urged him to stay in power. He "encouraged Mr. Abbas to pursue his actions in the service of the Palestinians and of peace," according to Sarkozy's office.
His was not the only voice calling on Abbas to hold on. In Ramallah, Robert Serry, the UN's special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, expressed his backing for the Palestinian leader.
"I conveyed to President Abbas the secretary-general's strong support for his leadership. But it is clear that this precious asset is now in jeopardy. I believe President Abbas's announcement last week is a loud and clear wake-up call," Serry said. "I repeat the secretary-general's call for a freeze on all settlement activity. Either we go forward decisively to a two-state solution in accordance with Security Council resolutions, or we risk sliding backwards."
Quartet envoy Tony Blair said that Abbas's decision not to run for reelection was not a political stunt, but a result of "deep frustration."
An agreement between Israel and the PA, under Abbas's leadership, would be the best possible result for the Palestinian people, Blair said.
"The overwhelming majority of Palestinians would back a two-state solution," he said. Such a deal would also weaken Hamas's popularity in the Gaza Strip, the former British prime minister added.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.
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