US, France seek consensus on Mideast peace meeting

By MATTHEW LEE | June 6, 2011 | 3:43 PM EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and France politely disagreed Monday over a strategy to get Israel and the Palestinians back to stalled peace talks and avert a potential diplomatic crisis at the United Nations later this year.

France has proposed hosting a peace conference aimed at heading off a Palestinian bid to secure recognition of an independent state at the U.N. General Assembly in September. The Palestinians have embraced the French proposal, while the Israelis are cool to the idea.

The U.S., which along with Israel opposes the Palestinian effort to secure U.N. recognition of an independent state, says an international meeting would only be productive if the two sides have agreed to start talking again.

"There is no agreement that the parties will resume negotiations and I think the idea of any gathering, a conference or a meeting, has to be linked to a willingness by the parties to resume negotiating," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters at a news conference with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.

Although she and Juppe both agreed that that a conference should not be held without proper preparation, Juppe argued it would be a critical to forestalling a crisis at the U.N.

"Our main concern is what will happen next September," said Juppe, who proposed to the idea to the Israelis and Palestinians when he was in the region last week.

"We have the feeling that if nothing happens before September, the situation will be very difficult for everybody when the General Assembly will discuss a resolution about the Palestinian state," he said. "The only way to avoid such a sensitive situation is to boost or to encourage the resumption of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, and that is what we are trying to do."

He pointed out that the Palestinians have embraced the proposal, while acknowledging that Israelis have said only that they are studying it.

Clinton said the U.S. strongly supports a return to negotiations, but does not think it would be productive to have a conference about returning to negotiations. "There has to be a return to negotiations which will take a lot of persuasion and preliminary work in order to set up a productive meeting between the parties," she said.

The Obama administration is in a "wait and see" mode about the merits of the conference in Paris, Clinton added. She was to meet later Monday with top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to discuss ways to get the talks, which foundered last year, back on track.