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Saturday 23 September 2017

World diplomats tell Trump and Israel that the Middle East needs peace

Pro-Israel demonstrators in Paris. (AP/Francois Mori)
Pro-Israel demonstrators in Paris. (AP/Francois Mori)

Dozens of countries have called on Israel and the Palestinians to revive work toward long-elusive peace - including an independent Palestinian state.

The plea sends a forceful message to Israel's prime minister and the incoming Trump administration

The closing declaration at a Middle East peace conference in Paris urged both sides to "officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution" and disassociate from voices that reject this.

It also warned them against taking one-sided actions that could hurt talks, an apparent reference to Israeli settlement building.

While the Palestinians welcomed Sunday's declaration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the conference "rigged" and cooked up behind Israel's back to force it to accept conditions against national interests.

The French organisers argued the conference was necessary to keep hopes alive for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians - the solution favoured by the international community for the past two decades.

Many members of Mr Netanyahu's coalition want to abandon the two-state solution and expand settlements, and some have even called for annexing parts of the West Bank.

President-elect Donald Trump's campaign platform made no mention of Palestinian independence.

In a nod to Israel, the final declaration of Sunday's conference included criticism of incitement and "terror", a reference to Palestinian attacks.

And some of the pro-Palestinian language in an earlier draft was removed after diplomats huddled in Paris.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been increasingly critical of Mr Netanyahu, represented the United States. at Sunday's talks and defended the effort.

He rejected Israeli criticism of the conference, saying the concept of a two-state solution to the conflict is "threatened" and must be reinforced if it is ever to happen.

The communique, he said, endorses that without imposing a resolution.

"Given where things are going and what is happening, that is particularly important," he said.

He also warned that it's too early to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem, as proposed by Mr Trump.

"This is not the right time," he said. "We think it's ill-advised."

Mr Trump's administration did not take part in the meeting.

While Mr Netanyahu has voiced support for a two-state solution, his critics, including Mr Kerry, have said that continued settlement construction on occupied territories raises questions about his commitment to pursuing a peace deal.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said Sunday's statement amounted to a rejection of Israel's occupation and settlement construction in captured territories.

He said it sent a message that Israel "cannot achieve peace and stability" without ending its occupation.

France and others expressed concern that the Trump administration could unleash new tensions in the region by condoning settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians and moving the US Embassy.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said such a move would be a "provocation" and could spark new violence. But the issue was not mentioned in the final declaration.

French President Francois Hollande said he was sounding an "alert" that peace talks should be revived for "the security of Israel, security of all the region" before violent extremists and Israeli settlements destroy any hope of a two-state solution.

"It is not a question of dictating to the parties," Mr Hollande insisted.

"Only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can lead to peace. No one will do it in their place."

"The world cannot, should not resign itself to the status quo," he told the gathered diplomats from across Europe, the Middle East and other regions, as well as from the United Nations, the Arab League and other international organisations.

Mr Hollande urged them to support peace efforts by offering economic incentives to Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu declined an invitation to a special meeting after the conference, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was initially expected, but his visit to Paris was postponed.

The Israeli prime minister said the gathering would do little to promote peace and marked the "last flutters of yesterday's world".

"Tomorrow will look different and tomorrow is very close," he said in apparent reference to Mr Trump's incoming administration.

Palestinian officials hope the conference can lay out terms for eventual negotiations, notably on how to share Jerusalem and the need to stop Israeli settlements.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have not negotiated even indirectly since a failed US-led peace effort in 2014.

While the conference was under way, a few hundred pro-Israel demonstrators, waving Israeli flags and placards denouncing the summit, gathered outside Israel's embassy in Paris.

"The Palestinians and a number of Arab states have not expressed a will for peace," Serge Klarsfeld, a well-known famous French Nazi hunter, said.

"If it existed and if the Arab world recognised the existence of Israel, we would find the means to solve all the problems very quickly."

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