France laments EU absence from Israel-Palestine talks

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French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has deplored the absence of the European Union from direct talks between Israel and Palestine, which are due to start today (2 September) in Washington.

Speaking to the press in Paris, Kouchner said it was "regrettable" that the Union was not directly represented.

"Europe is not condemned to be simply a financial partner. I think Europe should play a political role, in particular in the search for peace in the Middle East," he said.

This is not the first time Kouchner has touched upon the format of direct talks between Israel and Palestine. Last Friday, he said that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton should be the Union's representative.

Ashton replied the next day, saying that she could not attend next month's Middle East peace talks due to an upcoming China trip, adding that she had no place there anyway.

Ashton said former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair would represent the Quartet in Washington, but neither UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon nor Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would be there, "as they respect that this is the best way forward and the spotlight should be firmly focused on the talks themselves".

The talks begin at the State Department today, with the participation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah, after a 20-month hiatus.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday (1 September) that he was entering direct peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to reach an "historic compromise" that would enable both peoples to live in peace for generations.

In remarks prepared for delivery at a White House dinner hosted by US President Barack Obama and released by the Israeli authorities, Netanyahu said: "I came here today to find an historic compromise that will enable both peoples to live in peace, security and dignity."

Turning to Abbas, Netanyahu said, "President Abbas, you are my partner in peace. It is up to us to overcome the agonising conflict between our peoples and to forge a new beginning."

Reuters identifies the main issues on the table as the following:

Two-state solution

US President Obama is pushing for an agreement that would create a state for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside Israel: the so-called two-state solution at the heart of US efforts to promote peace between Israel and Palestine.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has said a Palestinian state must be demilitarised so as not to threaten Israel. The Palestinians do not object to this demand, but say it should be discussed in negotiations with Israel.

But the issue has been severely complicated by the fact that Gaza and the West Bank are run by different Palestinian parties, which are virulently opposed to each other. Hamas Islamists, who govern Gaza, denounce the notion of direct talks and do not recognise Israel's right to exist.

Israeli settlements

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called for a total freeze on the expansion of settlements built by Israel on land it captured in the 1967 war. That would be in line with a commitment Israel made under a 2003 US-backed peace 'road map'.

Netanyahu imposed a 10-month halt to new housing starts in West Bank settlements that expires on 26 September. He did not apply the measure to East Jerusalem, captured from Jordan in 1967, and has not committed to extending the West Bank moratorium.

Palestinians say all settlements should be evacuated, and along with the World Court and major powers, consider them illegal. Israel has said it intends to keep several major settlements in any future peace deal, a move that could result in territorial swaps with the Palestinians.

Jerusalem

Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and its sites sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, to be the capital of the state they aim to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Netanyahu has said Jerusalem would remain Israel's "indivisible and eternal" capital. Israel's claim to the eastern part of Jerusalem is not recognised internationally.

Refugees

Palestinians have long demanded that refugees who fled or were forced to leave in the war of Israel's creation in 1948 should be allowed to return, along with millions of their descendants. Yet Palestinian negotiators have signalled they would accept "a just and agreed-upon" solution for refugees as laid out in a UN resolution that mentions compensation for those who settle elsewhere.

Israel says any resettlement of Palestinian refugees must occur outside of its borders.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

Welcoming the initiative shown by all sides, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the talks should focus on "all final status issues". She went on to condemn the "terrible terrorist act" that killed four Israeli citizens near Hebron on 31 August.

Above all, according to Ashton, the attacks underline "the urgency of [finding] a two-state solution with the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine".

Envoys from the so-called Quartet of Powers - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations - have been discussing a draft statement inviting the two sides to talks intended to conclude a treaty in one year, a diplomatic source revealed two weeks ago (EURACTIV 20/08/10).

The Israelis and Palestinians were expected to agree to attend, and US President Barack Obama would be present at the talks, the source said.

The Quartet said in June that peace talks would be expected to conclude in 24 months, but the new draft says 12 months. The Palestinian Authority government intends to have established all the attributes of statehood by mid-2011.

Diplomats say the idea that a unilateral declaration of statehood could win support if talks do not start or collapse in the next 12 months is gaining interest.

Netanyahu may benefit from a move to direct talks, countering the notion abroad that he is not a genuine peace-seeker.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, by contrast, has a lot to lose politically. He could be destroyed if he emerged from the process after months of talking as a failed appeaser.

Few Palestinians or Israelis believe direct talks would lead to a peace treaty soon, or that one would be quickly implemented if it were ever agreed.

In Israel's coalition, attention is focused on the 26 September settlement moratorium deadline, with a majority of Netanyahu's inner cabinet opposed to extending the settlement freeze, but a minority seeking some compromise that Abbas could swallow.

One idea is to allow building in big established settlements that Israel expects to keep in a peace deal but not in those it would hand over in a land swap with the Palestinians.

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