Despite Netanyahu’s strong objections, questioning France’s objectivity and insisting on direct negotiations, the French foreign minister is determined to move ahead with a peace conference.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s opposition to the upcoming French peace conference during a meeting Sunday morning with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, adding that the fairness of the conference was undermined by a “scandalous” French vote in favor of a recent resolution by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) regarding the Temple Mount.”

“I told (Ayrault) that the only way to advance true peace between us and the Palestinians is through direct negotiations between us and them without preconditions,” Netanyahu told the cabinet.

“Our historical experience has shown that only in this way did we achieve peace with Egypt and Jordan,” continued Netanyahu. “Any other attempt only makes peace more remote and gives the Palestinians an escape hatch to avoid confronting the root of the conflict, which is the non-recognition of the State of Israel.”

The French foreign minister met with Netanyahu as part of a short visit to Israel in which he presented the French initiative to both Israeli and Palestinian officials. France is scheduled to convene and host an international conference later this month on the initiative, albeit without Israeli and Palestinian participation.

Netanyahu questioned France’s credibility to host such a conference in light of its decision to vote in favor of a recent UNESCO resolution that condemned Israeli policies on the Temple Mount and avoided any reference to the contested spot, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as a Jewish holy site. The resolution only referred to the Temple Mount – Judaism’s holiest site – by its Islamic name, “Al-Haram Al Sharif.”

Kotel Temple Mount

Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, at the foot of the Temple Mount. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I told (Ayrault) that the scandalous decision of UNESCO, with the support of France, which does not recognize the millennia-long connection between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount, casts a shadow on the fairness of any forum that France is trying to convene,” Netanyahu charged.
“He told me that this decision was due to a misunderstanding and that he would personally see to it that it does not recur.”

The Temple Mount has been a frequent flashpoint between Israelis and Palestinians, and escalating tensions surrounding the holy site have contributed to a wave of deadly terror attacks against Israelis in recent months.

French President Francois Hollande also referred to France’s vote as a “misunderstanding” in a letter to the local Jewish community last week. He stressed that France’s vote should not be viewed as an attempt to undermine the Jewish people’s historic connection to Jerusalem.

“Nothing in the French vote should be interpreted as calling into question the Jewish presence and history in Jerusalem,” wrote Hollande. “If there is a misunderstanding due to certain formulations in the resolution, I regret that, for the French position on the question of Jerusalem is clear and consistent: the defense of free access and worship in Jerusalem, a foundational city for the three great monotheistic religions that belongs to all the faithful, Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also expressed his regrets to the French parliament last week, referring to the UNESCO resolution’s wording as “unfortunate,” “clumsy,” and “offensive.”

Ayrault vowed not to give up on the upcoming international peace conference in Paris, speaking in a press conference at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday.

“We are not giving up, nor are our international partners,” Ayrault said. “Netanyahu says he wants only direct negotiations, but this option is stuck.”

“The status quo is a temptation but a dangerous temptation. There is a need to act before it is too late to restore hope,” Ayrault added.