Kerry May Participate in French-Hosted Mideast Peace Gathering Opposed by Israel

By Patrick Goodenough | May 17, 2016 | 4:10am EDT
Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas speak to reporters in Ramallah in June 2013. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry may participate in an upcoming French-hosted Mideast peace conference which Israel opposes, the State Department indicated on Monday.

Although spokesman John Kirby said he had no decision to announce about whether Kerry would attend, he also said that the department was “in discussions right now with the French about any possible alternative date that might better work for the Secretary.”

The event was initially planned for May 30, but Kirby indicated that would not work, because of travel schedule reasons and others which he did not elaborate on. Kerry is currently on a trip with announced stops in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, running through May 26.

Although about 20 countries have already been invited, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who visited Israel at the weekend, signaled a willingness to shift the date if necessary to accommodate Kerry.

The suggestion that Kerry may participate, should a suitable alternative date be found, marks a shift for the administration, which up to now has said merely that it was looking at the French proposal.

In general, the administration has sympathized with the Israeli position – leery of any attempt by outside parties to push forward a process which in line with the Oslo accords signed more than two decades ago has been predicated on direct talks between the two sides.

That stance lay behind U.S. opposition to attempts by the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and its allies to bring United Nations pressure to bear on Israel, including by upgrading the status of the “state of Palestine” at the world body and affiliated agencies.

When France in 2014 drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution seeking to set a timetable for a final status agreement resulting in Palestinian statehood, the U.S. opposed the measure. Ultimately the administration did not have to use its veto to defeat it, however, as the resolution failed to receive the necessary support – nine of the council’s 15 members – for it to move ahead.

The latest French proposal involves around 20 countries, including key Arab and European states, Russia, the U.S., the European Union, U.N. and Arab League. Israel and the P.A. will not themselves be invited in the meeting, whose aim is to agree upon a framework to get them back to the negotiation table.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday reiterated Israel’s opposition to the plan, telling a weekly cabinet meeting that any initiative other than direct talks between the two parties “only makes peace more remote and gives the Palestinians an escape hatch to avoid confronting the root of the conflict.”

“They simply avoid negotiating with us as part of their desire to avoid resolving the root of the conflict, which is recognizing the national state of the Jewish people, that is, the State of Israel,” he said.

P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas has long rejected calls to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something Netanyahu has been calling for since a landmark 2009 speech in which he conditionally endorsed Palestinian statehood.

After talks with Netanyahu on Sunday, Ayrault met with Abbas in Ramallah. An Abbas spokesman said the P.A. supported the French and Arab efforts, which were moving the situation “in the right direction.”

In 2013, Kerry poured his energies into a nine-month effort to kick start talks between Israel and the P.A., with the aim of reaching a final status agreement between the two sides.

The initiative collapsed in April 2014. Its failure was blamed – depending on who was doing the blaming – on Israeli housing construction in disputed territories, Abbas’ signing of accession letters to 15 international treaties, and his announcement of a reconciliation agreement with the Gaza-based terrorist group, Hamas.

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