Do not abandon hope of two-state solution, world warns Israel and Trump
By Patrick Wintour
The major powers – with the exception of Britain – sent out a warning to Israel and Donald Trump on Sunday not to abandon the hope of a two-state solution to end the Arab-Israeli conflict and urged all parties to disassociate themselves from voices that reject such a diplomatic solution to the deepest conflict in the Middle East.
Britain refused to sign the communique and attended only at observer level, unlike most EU states. It said it had “reservations about an international conference intended to advance peace between the parties that does not involve them – indeed, which is taking place against the wishes of the Israelis – and which is taking place just days before the transition to a new American president when the US will be the ultimate guarantor of any agreement. There are risks therefore that this conference hardens positions at a time when we need to be encouraging the conditions for peace”.
The British government probably fears that the conference risks becoming an attempt to circumscribe US policy on Israel before the Trump team has decided this. It is a primary tenet of UK foreign policy that the “special relationship” with the US is critical to the UK. With Britain expected to leave the EU within two years, the government may feel an even greater need not to alienate Trump.
The French-convened Paris conference on the Middle East on Sunday was attended by 70 nations, including the outgoing US secretary of state, John Kerry. It declared it will not recognise “unilateral steps that prejudge the outcome of negotiations on final status issues including Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees”.
It called for for a reversal of the “current negative trends on the ground including continued acts of violence and ongoing settlement activity”.
The French said the conference, which has been derided by Israel, was not designed for detailed peace talks but to broadly set out the parameters of an agreement and lay out the economic incentives available for each side if they re-engaged in talks.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister, said “the talks process had come to a grinding halt. There is no peace possible if we do not reaffirm the the two-state solution. There is no other option.” Any solution, the communique said, would have to fully end the occupation that began in 1967 and satisfy Israel’s security needs.
The reference in the communique does not explicitly extend to any steps the incoming US administration might take to move its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv, a step that would be seen as a symbolic acceptance that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
Donald Trump’s choice as US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, opposes the two-state solution and has said he could move some of his offices to Jerusalem. Other Trump administration figures have been less clear cut.
Kerry said a direct reference to Trump’s possible embassy plans “does not belong with international fora at the moment”. But Ayrualt said he will tell the incoming US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, that such unilateral moves would be treated as a provocation, adding that there would be extremely serious consequences. “When you are president of the United States, you cannot take such a stubborn and such a unilateral view on this issue. You have to try to create the conditions for peace,” he told France 3 TV.
Kerry said the Paris meeting showed “a constructive readiness to engage with Israel that has not really been put on the table” in recent years.
The wording of the final communique includes some softening from the draft, which highlighted a distinction between products from illegally occupied Israeli territories and the rest of Israel, wording that had been included in the controversial UN security council resolution passed without a US veto in December.
Over recent weeks the Paris conference has gradually transformed from an attempt to reopen talks between Israel and Palestine into a defensive operation to protect the possibility of a two-state solution. The French have repeatedly warned that more illegal Israeli settlements would end the chance of a Palestinian state.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to attend the talks, saying he will only hold direct bilateral talks with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.
Ayrault accepted that Netanyahu had changed his mind about the conference, adding that “at present the two sides seem far far removed from coming to the negotiating table”.
But the Palestinian leader, Mahmound Abbas, approved of the conference, saying he will meet the French shortly to discuss the next steps. Netanyahu dismissed the talks as rigged and the “last twitches of yesterday,” a reference to the changing of the political guard in Washington and Paris. “These are the death throes of yesterday’s world. Tomorrow will look different.”
Most senior EU foreign ministers attended, underlining the extent to which Britain may steer a different foreign policy course outside the EU.
François Hollande, the French president, defended the conference from those who said it was worthless, saying his efforts were not naïve and adding “there would be nothing more cynical than to do nothing to bring two parties together to end the region’s oldest conflict”.
In a bid to assuage Israel, Kerry also personally rang Netanyahu to promise that the communique will not be used as a basis to launch a second round of criticism of Israel at the security council this week. However the issue is likely to be taken up at the EU foreign affairs council in Brussels.