Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poured cold water on Sunday on the Middle East peace initiative advanced by France by questioning its impartiality, a claim swiftly denied by Paris.
Speaking to ministers ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu relayed remarks he had made to French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who was visiting the region ahead of a May 30 international ministerial meeting.
Ayrault’s visit aimed to prepare for the conference that would try to revive Middle East peace talks, frozen since a US-brokered initiative collapsed in April 2014.
Israeli and Palestinian representatives have not been invited to the French meeting to prepare for such a conference, mooted for the autumn.
“I told him that the scandalous resolution accepted at UNESCO with France’s support, that does not recognise the bond of thousands of years between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount, casts a shadow over the impartiality of the entire forum France is trying to convene,” Netanyahu told ministers of his talks with Ayrault.
He was referring to a resolution adopted last month by the Paris-based UN cultural body on the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, which made no reference to the fact that it is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and is Judaism’s most sacred site.
Sources close to Ayrault said on Sunday that France “regretted” the resolution, echoing remarks by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls who on Wednesday called it “clumsy” and “unfortunate” and said it should have been avoided.
But at the same time, Ayrault rejected Netanyahu’s questioning of French impartiality, insisting that an Israeli-Palestinian peace process was imperative to prevent the spread of deadly Islamist violence.
“France has no vested interest, but is deeply convinced that if we don’t want to let the ideas of the Islamic State group prosper in this region, we must do something,” he told reporters at Ben Gurion airport after meeting both Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Direct talks ‘only way’
While Israelis have just celebrated the 68th anniversary of their state’s inception, Palestinians on Sunday were marking the 1948 creation of Israel as the “nakba” — catastrophe in Arabic, as more than 760,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes.
Clashes erupted on the Gaza Strip border between Palestinians and Israeli forces, and the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups called for uprisings against Israel.
Palestinians also marched in several cities in the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu on Sunday reiterated his opposition to indirect peace attempts, blaming the Palestinians for rejecting direct talks.
“I told him that the only way to advance true peace between us and the Palestinians is through direct talks, without preconditions,” he said of his meeting with Ayrault.
“Any other attempt just distances peace and gives Palestinians a means of evading dealing with the root of the conflict, which is not recognising the State of Israel,” he said.
Sources in Ayrault’s entourage said the French initiative was not aimed at “preventing or bypassing” direct talks between the parties, which Paris believes is the only way to resolve the conflict.
“The problem is there are currently no negotiations,” the sources said.
Palestinian foreign minister Riad al-Malki told reporters after Ayrault met Abbas that unlike the Israelis, they welcomed the French initiative.
“We wish France and its efforts success because the French efforts are the only ones on the ground now, and could eventually result in giving the political process a good push forward at this stage,” Malki said.
The French, determined to push ahead with the peace initiative despite Israel’s reluctance, remain cautious as to the prospects of its success.
The United States has yet to say whether Secretary of State John Kerry, who was the central force behind the latest failed round of peace talks, would attend the May 30 Paris summit.
Ayrault said on Sunday the US “shared our concern” and indicated France would be willing to shift the date of the conference to accommodate Kerry’s schedule, should the need arise.