In a strange series of events, the French have offered to host a Middle East peace get-together, Mahmoud Abbas has said yes, Hamas has said no and Hillary Clinton has said forget about it. The Israelis responded on Sunday with a statement by the prime minister at a cabinet meeting:

Referring to the chances of engaging in peace talks with a Palestinian government that included Hamas, [Binyamin] Netanyahu said on Sunday that it was “important to emphasize at this point what we have been saying over and over: Negotiations will not take place with a Palestinian cabinet half of which is made of Hamas, a terror organization intent on destroying Israel.”

“I have made it clear to the French FM that Hamas must adopt the Quartet principles. If the claim that a new wind is blowing from Hamas, that could be proven by freeing Gilad Shalit,” the PM added, saying that if [Abbas] is on such good relations with Hamas, he could pressure Hamas to free Gilad.”

What is going on here? A former Middle East negotiator e-mailed me with his take on what the French may be up to, “France is trying [to set up a confab], I think, both as part of its generally more assertive foreign policy (itself a product of the French view that US foreign policy is hopeless) and because it wishes to avoid more turbulence in the Middle East and a divisive, difficult vote at the UN in September.”

Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies agrees that this is a “sad” statement on the decline of U.S. influence in the region. He says, “We are arguing with the French over who presides over the death of the peace process.” He sees the French as the prime European movers behind the Palestinian attempt for a unilateral declaration of statehood. In proposing the meeting, he explains, “France either wants to claim victory after years of failure by the U.S. or alternatively claim, ‘We didn’t find a breakthrough which is why we support [a U.N. action].’ ”

As for the secretary of state’s reaction, the former negotiator observes, “Hillary is saying no partly out of pique (who are the damn French to take an initiative!) and partly because she rightly believes that a big conference will fail when the two parties cannot sit down at a table together.” That the French and Americans are arguing in public, Schanzer suggests, does not speak highly of the Obama team’s diplomatic skills. “If they are attempting to reclaim leadership, they are doing a poor job of it,” he says of Clinton’s “snarky” exchange.

Several things are evident from this episode. First, Israel is smartly playing up the conflict between Fatah and Hamas while focusing on other efforts (e.g., a diplomatic offensive in Latin America) to dissuade other countries from signing on to a U.N. action. Second, France is emboldened to try to wrest control of the “lead broker” role because the Obama administration has been so dismally unsuccessful and is now generally distrusted by both the Palestinians and the Israelis. And finally, so much for the Obama administration’s efforts at quiet diplomacy to head off the U.N. vote (as observers such as Aaron David Miller predicted).

Right now, there is no sense of progress on any front, and we appear headed for a confrontation at the U.N., with the U.S. forced by Obama’s former BFF Abbas to veto a Security Council resolution and a potentially damaging General Assembly resolution on Palestinian statehood.