Nations struggle to craft new Mideast peace strategy

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PARIS (AP) – Nations struggled Friday to craft a viable new strategy for Mideast peace, failing to agree on a French proposal for an international conference that would bring together Israel and the Palestinians. Diplomats nevertheless vowed to reinvigorate a peace process that has been all but dead for two years.

The gathering in Paris of top diplomats from the United States and more than two dozen Western and Arab countries ended with a call for “fully ending the Israeli occupation,” a rhetorical shift from what Washington has previously endorsed.

But it wasn’t immediately clear if the shift meant a new focus and participants couldn’t outline how they might achieve that goal. As for the proposed peace mediation conference, they only welcomed the “prospect” of such an event later this year. Israel has fiercely opposed it; the U.S. hasn’t been supportive, either. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials were present for Friday’s talks.

“A negotiated two-state solution is the only way to achieve an enduring peace, with two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security,” a joint communique said. It called the status quo unsustainable and said “actions on the ground, in particular continued acts of violence and ongoing settlement activity, are dangerously imperiling the prospects for a two-state solution.”

France said it felt compelled to bring world and regional powers together at a time when Mideast peace appears further away than ever.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledges to pursue peace, his increasingly hardline government and its strained relationship with much of the international community makes that seem less likely. At the same time, Palestinian leaders won’t engage in direct talks while Jewish settlement construction continues in territories they hope to include in their state.

And with the Middle East occupied by crises such as Syria’s civil war and fighting the Islamic State, global attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has withered – despite months of deadly unrest. Palestinian attacks have killed 28 Israelis and two Americans since September. About 200 Palestinians have been killed in that time. Israel says most were attackers and Israeli forces killed the rest in clashes.

The vague reference to a future international peace conference suggests the idea was rebuffed in private discussions among lower-level aides before French President Francois Hollande, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Friday. For years, statements by the international Quartet of mediators – the U.S., Russia, the European Union and United Nations – ended with similar language about a future gathering in Russia “at an appropriate time.” That time never arrived.

Asked about a conference, Kerry told reporters: “I have no idea yet.” But he emphasized that right now, “we need to find some immediate kinds of steps on the ground that will make a difference.”

In his opening remarks, Holland allowed that “we cannot substitute for the parties.” Still, he said his country’s initiative could provide guarantees “that the peace will be solid, sustainable and under international supervision.”

As a first step, working groups will meet in the coming weeks to develop economic and security incentives for both sides, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters afterward.

The final communique’s other wrinkle was its reference to “fully” ending Israel’s occupation. That is subtly different than past papers supported by the U.S., even if President Barack Obama and other officials have used the term “occupation” and urged Israel to relinquish control over most of the territories it conquered in the 1967 Mideast War in a peace deal. This land includes the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Kerry himself led the last meaningful peace push, nine months of mainly indirect talks that collapsed in April 2014.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has welcomed France’s efforts, having long grown frustrated with Washington’s two-decade domination over peace efforts. Palestinians see the U.S. heavily favoring Israel and want an effort with more world powers involved, like last year’s Iran nuclear diplomacy.

Still, Foreign Minister Riad Malki expressed disappointment.

“We were expecting timelines for the negotiations,” he said, also lamenting the lack of demand to halt settlements.

Netanyahu is defiantly opposed to the French initiative. He says a deal can only be reached in direct negotiations. However, he has expressed openness to elements of a 2002 Arab peace proposal that offered Israel recognition throughout the Muslim world after a deal with the Palestinians.

Peace isn’t possible through “imposition,” David Keyes, Netanyahu’s spokesman, said Friday.

“If you have a dispute about your home,” he said, “you don’t fly to another continent and invite 30 people around the world to solve that conflict.”

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