French-led Middle East peace talks begin minus Israel, Palestinians

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Diplomats met in Paris on Friday in an attempt to revive long-dormant Middle East peace talks, but prospects appeared dim because the key players — Israel and the Palestinians — did not attend.

The French-led effort to arrange a peace conference this year aims to salvage a decades-old goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state. The United Nations, Arab League and about 20 countries sent representatives to the meeting, where French President Francois Hollande said threats posed by regional wars in the Middle East bring urgency to the initiative.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shunned the conference, saying that only direct negotiations could bring about a resolution to the conflict with Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also did not attend, saying there was no point without ground rules and a timeline for a deal. Abbas welcomed the French effort, however, as a departure from the U.S. monopoly on leading discussions. He complained that the United States has too often favored Israel in any talks, the Associated Press reported.

U.S Secretary of State John Kerry came to observe the discussions, which also were attended by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.

The Obama administration has not pushed to renew peace talks because of the growing animosity between Israel and Palestinians at this time. Israel is grappling with a series of attacks by Palestinians on Jews since last fall, and the Palestinian Authority is incensed over Jewish settlements rising on land in the West Bank that Palestinians claim as theirs.

Hollande acknowledged the difficulty of the task. “We cannot substitute for the (absent) parties,” he said, according to the AP. “Our initiative aims at giving them guarantees that the peace will be solid, sustainable and under international supervision.”

Participants decided to set up teams by the end of the month to work on economic and security incentives for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a deal, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said, the AP reported.

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