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France demands: Peace talks soon or a Palestinian state

France has dealt a blow to Israel’s hopes to isolate incoming Palestinian unity government by threatening to support a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence if peace talks do not begin by September.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy.
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Image: Thibault Camus/AP/Press Association Images

FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy says he will support a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence if peace talks with Israel don’t restart by September, dealing a tough setback to Israel’s campaign to isolate the incoming Palestinian unity government.

The comments published Thursday — similar to a message from Britain a day earlier — suggest Europe may be inching toward a watershed moment, joining those in favor of recognising Palestine even if there is no peace deal with Israel.

Sarkozy’s comments were published shortly before his meeting with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is touring Europe to rally opposition against the Palestinians. Netanyahu says it is impossible to talk peace with a government that is set to include the Islamic militant group Hamas.

But so far, Netanyahu appears to be making limited progress. Western governments have all called on Hamas to moderate its views, but are also urging Israel to make a new push for peace.

Speaking to the weekly newsmagazine L’Express, Sarkozy was quoted as saying if talks between Israel and the Palestinians don’t resume over the summer, France will help promote the international recognition of a Palestinian state.

“The idea that we have time is a dangerous idea, we must finish,” Sarkozy said.

Peace talks broke down last September with the expiration of an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank. Palestinians say there can be no talks if Israel is building homes on occupied territories they claim.

With peace talks stalled for months, Palestinian officials say they will ask the United Nations to recognize their independence in September with or without an agreement with Israel.

Palestinians say their state should include the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as the capital. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Mideast war, although it withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Netanyahu has said the borders of a future Palestine must be negotiated.

Palestine is already recognized by dozens of countries but not by the U.S. or most European nations. France’s endorsement would be a major setback to Israel and could spark a trend.

In a key step for their U.N. campaign, the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah agreed Wednesday to form a unity government and end a four-year rift that has left them divided between rival leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Fatah, which dominates the West Bank government, favors a peace agreement with Israel, while the Iranian-backed Hamas government in Gaza opposes Israel’s existence.

World capitals have reacted warily but notably have not ruled out dealing with the new government. Instead, they are expressing hope that Hamas will assume a peaceful posture.

During Wednesday’s ceremony in Cairo, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal did appear to signal a potentially more moderate tone, saying the goal was statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, as opposed to Israel’s destruction.

The French Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Hamas must “recognize the existence of Israel and its (territorial) integrity” and abandon violence. These demands reflect the longstanding positions of the “Quartet” of Mideast mediators — the U.S., EU, United Nations and Russia.

In Rome, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that the United States was waiting for more from Hamas.

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“We are going to be carefully assessing what this action really means,” Clinton said. “We have made it very clear that we cannot support any government that consists of Hamas, unless and until Hamas adopts the Quartet principles and the Quartet principles have been well known to everyone for a couple of years.”

The British prime minister, David Cameron, delivered a similar message to Netanyahu on Wednesday in London.

Cameron said “any new Palestinian government must reject violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist and engage in the peace process,” according to a spokesman. But he also urged Israel to return to the stalled peace talks.

Cameron made clear that Britain would consider supporting the declaration of Palestinian independence, particularly if peace talks don’t resume, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity under British civil service guidelines.

Cameron’s aides hope Cameron and Sarkozy can sway Netanyahu to re-enter negotiations, or to strike a more positive tone on the prospects for an agreement when Netanyahu delivers a speech to the U.S. Congress later this month.

Cameron, according to aides, said despite uncertain times, “I think it’s also a time of great opportunity — an opportunity that I hope we’ll be able to seize and to push forward a peace process.”

Sarkozy has long promoted a greater role for France and Europe in the peace process. He was expected to discuss a relaunching of the peace process in his talks with Netanyahu later Thursday. France “expects him to take the risk of peace,” Sarkozy said in the interview.

- AP

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