France decries lack of Israeli-Palestinian progress

JERUSALEM – French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Sunday that Israel and the Palestinians have made no real progress since a U.S.-sponsored peace conference in November, and called the situation dangerous.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed at the Annapolis, Maryland conference to launch the most serious peace talks in seven years with the goal of reaching a statehood agreement before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009.

But since the international gathering, “there has been no real progress in the peace process”, Kouchner told Israeli President Shimon Peres.

“This is a dangerous thing,” Kouchner said, citing growing despair and frustration among Palestinians, according to a statement issued by Peres’s office.

Peres told Kouchner that “people are losing faith in peace”, and that policymakers in the Middle East frequently fail to deliver. “Everyone talks and no one acts,” he said.

Both called for the immediate launch of economic projects to improve the lives of Palestinians and give them hope.

Palestinian leaders have voiced increasing frustration that Israel has yet to meet its commitments under a 2003 “road map” peace plan that calls for halting all Jewish settlement activity and for uprooting outposts built without government authorization in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli leaders say the Palestinians have yet to fulfill their own road map commitment to rein in militants.

The peace talks are opposed by Hamas Islamists who seized control of the Gaza Strip in June after routing Abbas’s secular Fatah forces. Since the takeover, Abbas’s authority has been limited to the West Bank.

SETTLEMENTS

Kouchner said he would discuss Israeli settlement building on Sunday during a series of meetings with Israeli leaders.

While Olmert has imposed a de facto halt to new construction in West Bank settlements, he has not called off building in and around Arab East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of a future state.

Olmert and Abbas are scheduled to meet on Tuesday in Jerusalem, Palestinian officials said.

Israeli officials say progress is being made in the peace talks, led on the Israeli side by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and for the Palestinians by ex-prime minister Ahmed Qurie.

But the two sides are divided on what a statehood deal should entail.

Abbas wants a full-blown agreement setting up a Palestinian state. Israeli leaders say they hope to reach a declaration of statehood principles that would be implemented over time and serve as the basis for a full-fledged agreement later.

In fresh violence in the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces killed three Palestinian militants and a civilian, medics said.

Israel often carries out air strikes and ground raids against militants in the coastal enclave, in what it says is an effort to stop militants firing rockets into southern Israel.

Visiting the Israeli border town of Sderot, a frequent target of rocket attacks, John Holmes, the United Nations’ undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called for an end to the salvoes, but cautioned Israel not to go too far in any military response.

“Obviously, I condemn the rockets…they cannot be justified. They should be stopped. But the response has to be considered proportionate as well,” Holmes said.

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