Netanyahu meets French foreign minister amid tensions

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Sunday morning with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who is visiting Israel in an effort to revive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu summarized his meeting with Ayrault at outset of the weekly cabinet meeting: “I told (Ayrault) that the only way to advance a true peace between us and the Palestinians is by means of direct negotiations between us and them, without preconditions.”

The French foreign minister’s staff also spoke about the proposed international peace conference after Ayrault and Netanyahu’s meeting. “France is operating with complete transparency regarding everything that concerns Israel. That is the point of the foreign minister’s visit, and he is carrying out a close dialogue with his Israeli counterparts. Israel was among the first states that the French special envoy visited,” they said.

Ayrault’s staff added, “We do not intend to determine what the results of the direct talks between the two sides (before they happen). The problem is that currently there are not talks. The foreign minister said that the goal of the French initiative is to unite the international community behind a renewal of its commitment to a two-state solution and the creation of beneficial conditions to revive direct talks between the sides.”

The French foreign minister’s staff also addressed the Israeli government’s criticisms of the recent French vote at UNESCO, which Israel officials said “denies our attachment to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.” They said, “(The foreign minister) has requested that the misunderstanding caused by the French vote at UNESCO regarding the situation in Jerusalem be clarified. He (also) made clear that France’s position vis-à-vis Jerusalem has not changed. Jerusalem is a city rooted in the traditions of the three monotheistic religions and belongs to all believers including Jews, Christians, and Muslims. France is committed to freedom of movement and worship in Jerusalem.”

Ayrault’s staff called on Israeli officials to refrain from making “counterproductive” statements. They said, “Harmful declarations that can be avoided have caused misunderstandings. France is troubled by them. The French prime minister was very clear about this (issue) in his speeches in front of the National Assembly and the Senate.”

The foreign minister’s staff stated further, “The foreign minister has strongly condemned terror when it strikes Israel, Arab states, or France. And he has expressed solidarity with the victims’ families in Israel, which include French families.”

Departing Jerusalem, Ayrault spoke of the upcoming Quartet (the USA, Russia, the EU and the UN) report on the frozen peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. “I told Netanyahu that we don’t expect there to be songs praising progress in the peace process,” the foreign minister said.

He added that France is preparing the list of countries that will participate in the meeting of foreign ministers that will take place in Paris in a fortnight.

“It’s clear to us, and I said this to Netanyahu and Abbas, that we cannot take (their) places. They will have to hold direct negotiations, but, because things are stuck, they need external involvement. The goal is to get back to negotiations…Netanyahu doesn’t agree that this is correct. I know that there is vehement opposition. That’s not new, and it won’t discourage us. The summit will convene.”

Netanyahu sent a letter to French President François Hollande last week in which he protested the French vote at UNESCO. Netanyahu wrote Hollande, “The organization responsible for safeguarding the world’s historic heritage has stooped to rewriting a basic and irrefutable part of human history. While we have no illusions regarding the United Nations’ commitment to truth or fairness, we were frankly shocked to witness our French friends raising their hands in favor of this disgraceful decision.”

Netanyahu added in his letter, “The international validation of Palestinian efforts to deny Jewish history and to perpetuate the myth of Israel’s aggression on the Temple Mount is not only immoral, it is also dangerous.” After receiving Netanyahu’s letter, Hollande informed the French Jewish community that the decision to support the UNESCO vote was a mistake. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also called the vote “unfortunate and clumsy.”