Race to hold conference heats up; Israeli diplomats warn next government must back two-state solution.
By HERB KEINON
While not enthused at this time about any international peace conference, Israel would prefer that - if one becomes inevitable - it be hosted by Russia, not France, senior government officials said Thursday.
The officials spoke ahead of a somewhat oddly timed visit to Israel on Sunday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and as a race was heating up between Russia and France over who would host the next international Middle East conference.
One of the reasons for Lavrov's visit, even at a time of governmental transition in Israel, is to push Moscow's bid, the official said.
Lavrov will also be going to the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Oman and Bahrain.
Lavrov, according to Russian sources, will meet with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu.
Israeli officials said Jerusalem favored Russia to host another Middle East summit - if one must be held - because Moscow had been pushing for a follow-up to the 2007 Annapolis conference for months; because the idea had been enshrined in numerous Quartet statements since; because Israel appreciated Moscow's "balanced" position during Operation Cast Lead; and because French President Nicolas Sarkozy seemed intent on using a conference to push for wider international acceptance of Syrian President Bashar Assad, even though Damascus had not modified its behavior regarding Hizbullah, Hamas, Lebanon or Iran.
The officials said that with US President Barack Obama's administration still not yet in full stride on the Middle East, Sarkozy - who is always looking for initiatives - sensed an opportunity to raise his country's profile in Middle East diplomacy. The move, according to Israeli officials, has irritated the Russians.
"The French are trying to do everything to paint a moderate portrait of Assad, even though Syria has not yet sent an ambassador to Lebanon, has not stopped the arms smuggling to Hizbullah, and is still supporting Hamas. The French are creating an illusion of Syria, as if they are not reading the papers or intelligence documents," the officials said.
Sarkozy, who floated the international conference idea last month, discussed it in Paris earlier in the week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
On Wednesday in Moscow, following talks with top EU foreign policy officials, Lavrov said that "we will soon announce the time frame for holding a Moscow conference."
An announcement of such a meeting while Israel's leaders are still busy putting together a coalition, however, could be awkward. In general, Foreign Ministry officials said that from a diplomatic perspective, and out of a concern for Israel's standing abroad, it was important to form a government as quickly as possible.
The confusion caused by Tuesday's election, and the prospect of a long, drawn-out coalition-building process have stymied some of the Foreign Ministry's activities, one ministry official said. He added that it was difficult for Israeli diplomats to respond to all types of rumors regarding the next government - from stories that it would ditch a two-state solution to reports that it would expand the settlements - without knowing conclusively who the next prime minister would be and what the new coalition's guidelines would look like.
According to the official, any government that backed away from Israel's commitment to a two-state solution would find itself badly isolated in the international community.
"Any government that says it doesn't accept two states would be completely isolated. No one would work with it, or if they did, it would be tense. Israel's efforts to upgrade relations with the EU and join the OECD, as well as many processes begun with the US, would be endangered. In that scenario, our biggest friends would not assist us."
The official said the very fact that there was concern abroad that Israel was going to take a sharp turn was not good, and did not add to trust in Israel.
"The continuous dealing with the question of whether the country will remain committed to the peace process creates a bad impression abroad, and we don't have the tools to deal with it, because we don't know what the future government's polices will be," he said. "A vacuum is not good for Israeli diplomacy."
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