- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2016

The prospects for a peace process with the Palestinians was so bleak that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin’s Netanyahu’s appointment of a hard-right defense minister last week has barely provoked a ripple of global media attention.

But a political firestorm is raging inside Israel as France tries to breathe life into the long-stalled peace process with a meeting involving 26 countries Friday in Paris to prepare for a full conference tentatively slated for later this year.

Neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders have been invited to Friday’s meeting, and skepticism about its prospects has been swelling since Mr. Netanyahu suddenly brought the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party into his ruling coalition last week by naming the party’s hawkish leader, Avigdor Lieberman, as Israel’s defense chief.

Mr. Lieberman is an outspoken West Bank settler known for his incendiary comments toward Palestinians and Arabs in general. At one point, he called for bombing Egypt’s Aswan Dam and suggested toppling the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Just a few weeks ago, he threatened to kill a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has called Mr. Netanyahu’s embrace of Mr. Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu a sign that Israel has become “infected by the seeds of fascism.”

The appointment, which bolsters Mr. Netanyahu’s political coalition at home, casts a shadow over the already tense relations between the Israeli prime minister and the Obama administration, which for years criticized Israeli settlements in the West Bank and all but gave up on the peace process after it broke down two years ago.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry will join the Paris meeting, but U.S. officials have been clear that France is leading it.

When asked whether the right-wing shift in Jerusalem has doomed the prospects for a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, State Department spokesman John Kirby said, “That’s for Prime Minister Netanyahu to decide.

“We want to see the kind of leadership demonstrated that can get us to a two-state solution,” Mr. Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “But how they approach that, if they approach that goal, well that’s for them to speak to.”

The Palestinians have welcomed the meeting, but the signals from Israel are less clear.

On Thursday, Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold predicted that the meeting would “completely fail.”

He told reporters that Israel still prefers one-on-one talks between Israel and the Palestinians, coupled with a separate initiative from Arab nations.

“The only way to make peace” with the Palestinians is through direct negotiations with no preconditions, he said, according to The Associated Press.

Mr. Netanyahu has appeared eager to convince international observers that his government still wants to negotiate toward a two-state solution, despite the Lieberman appointment.

Mr. Netanyahu made headlines Monday by saying he favors a peace plan Saudi Arabia put forward in 2002 that centered on a proposal by Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory where the Palestinians seek statehood.

According to the Reuters news agency, Mr. Netanyahu said the Saudi plan had “positive elements” but needed some revisions.

Said Arikat, a Washington-based journalist and analyst with Al-Qods, the largest-circulation Palestinian newspaper, expressed doubt about the prospect for progress.

“The formation of this government in Israel does not really bode well in any way, shape or form for restarting the peace negotiations in any forum, whether it be bilateral between the Palestinians and the Israelis or an international conference,” Mr. Arikat said in an interview.

“The fact that Mr. Kerry is participating is basically a goodwill gesture to the French,” he said. “Beyond that, I don’t think the U.S. government has any new proposals or any new formula to get the peace talks going.”

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