PARIS – Fearing a new eruption of violence in the Middle East, more than 70 world diplomats gathered in Paris on Sunday to push for renewed peace talks that would lead to a Palestinian state.
The conference is meant to be a forceful message to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that much of the world wants peace and sees a two-state solution as the best way to achieve it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"A two-state solution is the only possible one," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in opening the conference, calling it "more indispensable than ever" to solve the protracted conflict.
Netanyahu has snubbed Sunday's conference as "rigged" against Israel, and Trump's incoming administration isn't taking part.
The gathering is an "empty summit" that was cooked up behind Israel's back and is designed to force conditions on the country that are against its national interests, Netanyahu said.
French diplomats fear Trump will unleash new tensions in the region by condoning settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians and potentially moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem.
"Both parties are very far apart and their relationship is one of distrust — a particularly dangerous situation," Ayrault said at the conference. "Our collective responsibility is to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. We know it is difficult, but is there an alternative? No, there isn't."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Paris defending American interests at the conference, in his last major diplomatic foray before he leaves office. It marks the end of eight years of failed U.S. efforts at Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.
Netanyahu declined an invitation to a special meeting after the conference, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was initially expected, but his visit to Paris was postponed.
The Israeli prime minister said the gathering would do little to promote peace and marks the "last flutters of yesterday's world."
"Tomorrow will look different and tomorrow is very close," he said in apparent reference to Trump's incoming administration.
According to a draft statement obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, the conference will urge Israel and the Palestinians "to officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution."
It also will affirm that the international community "will not recognize" changes to Israel's pre-1967 lines without agreement by both sides.
The final conference declaration also may warn Trump against moving the embassy, a move that could be seen as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital after decades of insisting that the city's status must be determined by direct negotiations.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have not negotiated even indirectly since a failed U.S.-led peace effort in 2014.
While the conference was underway, a few hundred pro-Israel demonstrators, waving Israeli flags and placards denouncing the summit, gathered outside Israel's embassy in Paris.
"The Palestinians and a number of Arab states have not expressed a will for peace," Serge Klarsfeld, a well-known famous French Nazi hunter, said. "If it existed and if the Arab world recognized the existence of Israel, we would find the means to solve all the problems very quickly."
The demonstrators loudly booed French lawmaker Pierre Lellouche when he took the podium and declared himself in favor of a "two-state solution" and the halting of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.
Ariel Goldmann, president of the French Jewish association Fonds Social Juif Unifié, called the gathering a "mockery of dialogue, a mockery of peace, a historical mockery." Goldmann said he was "sad that France is lending itself to such a maneuver."