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John Kerry joins French-led Middle East peace push

With no real hope that the Obama administration can leave Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement as part of its legacy, Secretary of State John F. Kerry joined a last-ditch French-led effort Friday to revive talks aimed at easing the long-stalemated Middle East conflict.

The daylong meeting, convened in Paris by the French government, was notable for the fact that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were invited.

It concluded with a call for a peace conference in the fall that would include the two warring sides.

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Kerry, who has long said he was determined to push the peace process forward before leaving office, was noncommittal about the prospects of another summit.

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“We’ll have that conversation,” he told reporters.

In a joint statement, participants in Friday’s talks, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and about 25 senior European and Arab diplomats, urged Israelis and Palestinians to “genuinely” commit to a two-state solution and to create conditions for “fully ending” Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

Participants warned that continued violence, including a series of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians, as well as building of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, was “dangerously imperiling the prospects for a two-state solution.”

“We are reaching a point of no return,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told a news conference in Paris.

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Israel, which opposed Friday’s conference because it fears any threat to impose restrictions on the Jewish state, condemned the event once it had concluded.

The conference was “a missed opportunity,’’ the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “History will record that the conference in Paris only hardened the Palestinian position and distanced the chances for peace.’’

Israel maintains that only direct, bilateral talks between it and the Palestinians will succeed – even though that process has not produced a lasting solution in decades. The last such effort broke down two years ago.

The Palestinians, who have been seeking to “internationalize” the peace process as a way to garner support and recognition, initially welcomed the French initiative. Palestinian representatives were disappointed by Friday’s statement, however, because it failed to set a timetable for talks.

“I felt the statement was diluted and deliberately vague. It doesn’t add to the political discourse except mentioning the two-state solution,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, told The Times in Tel Aviv. “We hope there will be a real action plan to end the occupation and to provide the two-state solution.”

Losing hope in the long-stalled peace process, the Palestinians for the last several years have instead pursued efforts to gain recognition of a Palestinian statehood at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.

Kerry initially was reluctant to attend Friday’s conference in part because Israel and the Palestinians were not invited. He ultimately took part, in hopes of giving “any good ideas” a chance to prosper, his spokesman, John Kirby said.

“It is something he’s very keenly interested in, has remained so, will remain so for the whole time that he’s Secretary of State,” Kirby said.

U.S. officials remain skeptical about reviving peace talks, which have not taken place at a high Israeli-Palestinian level since 2008. President Obama will leave office in seven months, and with other crises overseas, the White House may not be able to marshal sufficient political capital to carry off a deal.

Both Israeli and Palestinian positions have also hardened in the last few years.

Now 81, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is losing support from an increasingly disillusioned public. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently installed one of the most hard-line Cabinets in years.

The Paris push comes amid a flurry of proposals seen as 11th-hour attempts to breathe new life into the moribund peace process before Obama leaves office.

They include one backed by retired Gen. John Allen, former senior advisor for the Middle East to the Defense Department, that would deploy more U.S. troops to help guarantee security in the Palestinian territories.

The proposals are in new reports by the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, and Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of former Israeli military and intelligence officials.

The reports, which advocate a two-state solution through security for Israel and sovereignty for a future Palestine, were coordinated by the Israel Policy Forum, a nonpartisan U.S. advocacy group.

The reports call for a phased “conditions-based, performance-dependent” withdrawal of Israeli security forces from Palestinian territories, creation of a Palestinian non-militarized security force, and establishment of joint operations centers and data-sharing mechanisms aimed at stopping suspected militants and criminals.

The authors also called for placing U.S. monitors on the Palestinian side of the Jordan River, which borders Jordan, and more training, equipping and vetting of Palestinian security forces by U.S. personnel.

Currently, the Pentagon has 18 personnel training Palestinian officers.

Special correspondent Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv and Times staff writer William Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.

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