France, UK press Israelis, Palestinians ahead of talks

The British and French foreign ministers met Palestinian and Israeli leaders on Sunday in a bid to boost the chances of success at a US-sponsored Middle East peace meeting later this month. The flurry of diplomacy came amid lowered expectations for the conference planned in Annapolis, Maryland, in late November with the aim of kickstarting long-dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Israeli settlements – illegal under international law – in the Occupied West Bank were the main obstacle to achieving peace.

“I will say in my meetings with Israelis what I have already told them and what France repeats every day – settlements are not only illegal, politically they are also the main obstacle to peace,” he was quoted as saying in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam. “For the peace process to advance, Israel must bring an immediate stop to this.”

The Palestinians have written to the US government ahead of the Annapolis meeting, demanding a complete freeze to the expansion of the illegitimate settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was expected to announce at Annapolis a freeze to all settlement construction, a senior Israeli official has told AFP.

“Annapolis will not be a failure because the fact that it is being held is a success in itself,” Olmert’s office quoted him as saying after meeting Kouchner, who also held talks later with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

Abbas told Kouchner the Palestinians want the meeting “to be the launching point for final negotiations, with a precise timetable,” his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband met Israel’s foreign and defense ministers Sunday ahead of talks with Olmert on Monday. He met Abbas shortly after arriving on Saturday.

Amid the diplomatic offensive, both sides confirmed that Abbas and Olmert were preparing to hold their own last round of talks on Monday before the US meeting. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have held intensive talks in a bid to hammer out a joint declaration outlining a solution to the conflict which they hope to present at Annapolis.

Differences over the document have lowered expectations for the meeting and in talks with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Friday, Abbas said he was pessimistic.

The Palestinians are “unhappy … because the Israelis have not offered something that could ensure the success of the conference,” said the Palestinian ambassador in Riyadh, Jamal al-Shobaki. Abbas told Abdullah Washington should “put pressure on Israel, obliging it to comply with the terms of reference of the peace process, namely the  road map, the Arab peace initiative and UN resolutions,” Shobaki added.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told a news conference with Kouchner that after Annapolis the most important meeting would be a Paris donor conference next month. “The success of the Annapolis meeting is launching a process of dialogue … on all the outstanding issues that need to be solved in order to create a Palestinian state as part of the vision of two states for two people,” she said.

Kouchner said the donor conference would be “where we have to give flesh to the decision and perspective accepted in Annapolis” on a future Palestinian state.

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