French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited Israel on Sunday to advance his country's plan to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in the face of opposition from his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu.
Valls, who arrived on Saturday night, is to meet Netanyahu on Monday before holding talks in Ramallah on Tuesday with Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has welcomed the French initiative to hold a meeting of foreign ministers from a range of countries on June 3, without the Israelis and Palestinians present.
Another conference would then be held in the autumn, with the Israelis and Palestinians in attendance. The goal is to eventually restart negotiations that would lead to a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has criticised the initiative and called for direct negotiations between the two sides.
Negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have been at a standstill since a US-led initiative collapsed in April 2014.
In an interview with Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam published Sunday, Valls called himself a “friend of Israel” but said that Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank must stop.
He also reiterated that his government would not automatically recognise a Palestinian state if the peace initiative failed.
A threat to do so was made in January by former foreign minister Laurent Fabius, angering the Israeli government, which argued that it removed any incentive for the Palestinians to negotiate in good faith. His successor Jean-Marc Ayrault has since backed away from the statement.
“The objective is to arrive at the creation of a Palestinian state,” Valls said in the interview.
“It is to allow your national aspirations to finally be realised. To say today when we will recognise the Palestinian state is to determine in advance the failure of our initiative.”
‘Facts on the ground’
Valls said “we must also guarantee” Israel’s security, but called for a halt to settlement building, considered a major stumbling block to peace.
Settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law and built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
“Stopping settlements is an imperative,” he said. “Because we cannot both want to discuss peace and be sincere in the negotiations and at the same time continue to create facts on the ground.”
Seeking to address Israel’s concerns, Valls said that France’s initiative would not try to impose a solution and that negotiations between the two sides would ultimately resolve the conflict.
Valls’s visit comes at a time of political turbulence in Israel, with Netanyahu expected to soon finalise negotiations with the party of hardliner Avigdor Lieberman to join his coalition.
Lieberman, who lives in a West Bank settlement and is detested by the Palestinians, is expected to take on the key role of defence minister.
On Sunday, Netanyahu sought to ease concerns over the expected entrance of Lieberman’s party into his coalition, saying his government would still seek peace with the Palestinians.
Valls’s visit on Sunday was mainly devoted to economic and cultural issues.