JERUSALEM — French officials said Sunday that they will continue to press ahead with plans to host a multilateral Middle East peace conference later this year, despite hearing, in blunt language, that Israel doesn’t really like the idea.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to promote what diplomats are calling the “French Initiative,” a still evolving and admittedly vague diplomatic project that seeks to bring global attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and find consensus among the international community on how to move forward with a two-state solution.
The French are planning to host about 30 foreign ministers — from Europe and the Middle East as well as Russia, China and India — at a preparatory meeting at the end of this month, which could lead to a peace conference later this year.
Neither Israel nor the Palestinians, who support the French Initiative, will attend the May meeting in Paris.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has not said whether he would be there.
Israeli officials have been pressing Washington to pour cold water on the French effort, which seeks to fill the vacuum left behind by the Obama administration, which declared that it would not be making any major move to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The Palestinians want a sovereign state with established borders based on 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as their capital and a right of return for refugees.
Netanyahu in the past has said he supports a two-state solution, but he also promised voters in the most recent election that it would not happen on his watch.
The prime minister has warned that any future state for Palestinians would quickly be taken over by Islamist radicals bent on Israel’s destruction.
Recently, Netanyahu has said he is willing to talk “anywhere, anytime” with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, “without preconditions” — although the prime minister also insisted Abbas recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” for talks to move forward.
Netanyahu told Ayrault that Israel is not interested in international conferences, including the French Initiative.
“I told him that the only way to advance a true peace between us and the Palestinians is by means of direct negotiations between us and them, without preconditions,” Netanyahu said after the meeting.
The French foreign minister told the Israeli media, “We aren’t giving up, and neither are our partners.”
Ayrault said that Netanyahu’s call for direct negotiations with the Palestinians has been stalled since U.S.-brokered talks imploded in the spring of 2014, and that something needs to be done to break the impasse.
“I know that there is strong opposition. This is not new and it won’t discourage us. The conference will take place,” Ayrault said, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“The goal is to help return to negotiations,” he said.
Netanyahu is always looking for excuses not to talk, said a Palestinian diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because talks were ongoing, adding that the Palestinians support the French Initiative because U.S. efforts to broker a deal have failed.
“It’s important to get out of the U.S. orbit and expand the players. Of course, the United States will be a party, but it cannot be the only one,” the diplomat said.
Dore Gold, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: “Israel has been very clear. We are not going to accept the French Initiative. We think it is a big mistake and we are not going to get involved.”
Gold said that successful peace talks with Egypt and Jordan were conducted as direct negotiations, not multilaterally.