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Israel declines invitation to Paris Middle East peace conference

Israel rejected an invitation from France to a Middle East peace conference in Paris later this year, saying that it wanted to engage in direct talks with the Palestinians.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Abir Sultan/AP

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Israel formally rejected Monday an invitation to join France’s forthcoming international conference on Middle East peace, saying it would distract from the goal of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The summit, planned for Paris in December, seeks to reinvigorate the pursuit of peace, stalled ever since the last round of US-led negotiations collapsed in April 2014.

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Israel has already been scornful of the French proposal, with one official comparing the conference to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, whereby France and Britain carved up the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But Monday’s meeting in Jerusalem between Israeli officials and French envoy Pierre Vimont was the first time the plan had received official rejection.

“It was made clear to the French envoy that Israel will not participate in any international conference convened contrary to its position,” read a statement from the Israeli prime minister’s office. The press release continues by saying that such a conference would only serve to allow the Palestinians to “continue avoiding the decision to enter into direct negotiations without preconditions.”

For their part, French officials have said the conference will proceed, and, according to Reuters, a spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said they welcomed the proposal “whether Israel participates or not.”

The conference in December is the latest in a series of efforts by France to stimulate real progress, and it comes after a preliminary gathering in June which brought together the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and major Arab nations to consider various proposals. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians were invited.

In declining their invitation for the follow-up conference, the Israelis also expressed their concern that such an international gathering would provide a forum for the Palestinians to seek attention rather than engage in meaningful discussions aimed at finding solutions. Others see in Israel’s rejection a lost opportunity to prove to the world that they are serious in their desire for a settlement to the decades-old conflict.

“If the Israeli government would decide to come to such a conference,” Mr. Vimont told the Jerusalem Post, “it would be a perfect arena so that everyone, at last, would think that the commitment by the Israeli government to a two-state solution is genuine, sincere and deeply based and grounded in strong convictions.”

While some analysts worry that the possibility of finding a two-state solution may be fading, others maintain that should key stumbling blocks be addressed – namely Israel’s continued expansion of its settlement-building program, and divisions within the Palestinian political class – such a deal could yet be clinched.

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This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.