Jordan monarch, French PM tackle resumption of peace talks

Sarkozy: France ready to host Mideast peace conference

PNA asks Arab follow-up committee to meet prior to summit

Israel resumes Judaization attempt by adding Abraham, Rachel shrines to its own heritage list, continues excavation works beneath al-Aqsa Mosque

Assad asks U.S. to back Turkish role in Golan negotiations

Middle East peace talks must be restarted to avoid a “catastrophe,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared Monday, adding that he and visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has discussed a new initiative for the region.

But Sarkozy backed off the notion of declaring a Palestinian state before borders with Israel are defined, as suggested by France’s foreign minister.

“We think the end of discussions makes the bed of extremists,” Sarkozy said at a joint news conference with Abbas.

“If there are no talks … we take the risk, the international community, of a third Intifada,” Sarkozy said.

“If we do nothing it will be a catastrophe,” he added.

Sarkozy backed the creation of a “viable” Palestinian state on Monday but was cautious about repeating his foreign minister’s support for possible recognition of a state before its borders were set.

He repeated France’s support for statehood for Palestinians but added: “We have always said a viable Palestinian state.”

“What we want when we argue for a Palestinian state is a real state, which can give hope and a future for millions of Palestinians. It’s not just an idea,” he told reporters.

In a newspaper interview at the weekend, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that to break a stalemate in Middle East peacemaking, some countries might recognize a Palestinian state before its borders were fixed.

“One can imagine a Palestinian state being rapidly declared and immediately recognized by the international community, even before negotiating its borders. I would be tempted by that,” he told the Journal du Dimanche.

Sarkozy said that Kouchner was thinking of possible ways to bring momentum to the peace process but that France’s goal remained a functioning Palestinian state in clearly set borders.

“In Bernard’s comments, there was the thought that if we don’t manage that, then when the time comes, in accord with our Palestinian friends, we might underline the idea of this state politically, to lift it up a notch in a way,” he said.

“But the objective is the idea of a Palestinian state in the frontiers of 1967, with an exchange of territory, just as we have said all along.”

In a joint editorial published in the daily Le Monde, Kouchner and his Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos said that Europe would push for a tight timetable for a final round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and that talks should lead to the recognition of a Palestinian state.

But Kouchner did not repeat his comments over the weekend that suggested that Europe could recognize Palestine even before it has reached an agreement with Israel on the definitive border between the two.

“We need … a fixed calendar of negotiations on the final status questions [security, borders, water, refugees and Jerusalem] and a serious framework mechanism, learning from past mistakes,” the ministers wrote.

The Palestinian leadership said last year it would seek UN Security Council backing for a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, referring to the West Bank and Gaza Strip borders as they were on the eve of the 1967 Middle East war.

The Palestinian leadership said the initiative would not be a unilateral declaration of statehood but would aim to secure international support for the eventual creation of a state based on the 1967 borders.

Sarkozy said that if any such initiative were launched, “we would see what we would do” but that it was up to the Palestinians to decide how they wished to proceed.

Israel has sharply criticized the idea of any unilateral initiative and says only negotiations can produce results.

But there has been growing speculation in Israel that the Palestinians are looking for ways around direct talks which have been suspended for over a year.

In Amman, Jordan and France on Sunday voiced backing for the convening of an international conference that could help achieve progress in the stalled Middle East peace process.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon is visiting the region, and met his Jordanian counterpart Samir Rifai for talks in Amman.

"The two sides welcomed any sincere effort that seeks concerted and constructive action to push forward the peace process, including the possibility of convening an international conference at the appropriate time and in full coordination with all concerned parties," a joint statement said.

Fillon, who arrived in Amman Saturday night for a two-day official visit, also held separate talks with King Abdullah II.

Fillon called for the establishment of "a viable, independent and democratic Palestinian state that lives in peace with Israel and on the basis of the 1967 borders and the relevant UN Security Council resolutions as well as the Arab peace initiative".

"Jordan and France share the same viewpoint and we do believe that there is no other way except that of peace," he said.

The Arab peace initiative offers Israel full recognition by all Arab states if it leaves the Arab territories it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, including East Jerusalem.

Furthermore, Jordan and France on Sunday signed several agreements to foster ties between the two countries in a variety of fields, Jordan’s state-run Petra news agency, reported.

In the presence of visiting French Prime Minister Fillon and Jordan's Prime Minister Rifai, officials from the two countries signed an agreement to create an excellent center for energy and mega projects in Jordan, in addition to another deal to explore and utilize uranium in the Arab kingdom.

Jordan is abundant in uranium reserves with an estimate of some 140,000 tons. It is also home to other nuclear materials such as zirconium and the country is expected to produce annually 2,000 tons of yellowcake and about 300 tons of phosphate as of 2013.

The two countries also signed agreements to cooperate in the field of protecting biodiversity, civil defense as well as a deal to enhance Jordan's commercial capabilities, according to the agency.

Later in the day, King Abdullah II of Jordan held talks with the French prime minister that focused on means to bolster bilateral ties in different fields.

Discussions between the Jordanian leader and Fillon also covered developments in the Middle East and efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the two-state solution.

In this regard, Abdullah II underlined the need for intensified international efforts to restart serious and effective peace talks to end the conflict based on the two-state solution, which envisages the creation of an independent Palestinian state that lives side by side with Israel.

Petra reported that Jordanian prime minister held talks with his French counterpart in Amman on means to enhance ties in different fields. They also looked into regional and international developments and issues of mutual concern.

In a press conference following the meeting with Rifai, the French prime minister said it is important to resume Palestinian- Israeli peace talks at this stage as "wasting time is not in the interest of any of the parties involved."

Fillon added that peace can only be realized with the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative.

The peace overture offers Israel normal ties with the Arab states in return for withdrawal from territories it occupied in 1967.

On the other hand, Israel added two key West Bank holy shrines to its list of national heritage sites, the prime minister said Sunday, staking a claim that angered Palestinians, who want Israel out of the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing a session of his Cabinet at a heritage site in the Israeli Galilee, said the two sites were late additions to the list, reflecting pressure from settlers and other nationalists to widen the heritage category to include Old Testament sites in the West Bank.

One of the sites, in the city of Hebron, has been a flashpoint for decades. Jews call it the Cave of the Patriarchs, where the Bible says the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried along with three of their wives.

Muslims call it the al-Ibrahimi mosque, reflecting the fact that Abraham is considered the father of both Judaism and Islam.

Hebron is a focus of violence because it is the only place in the West Bank where Jews live among Palestinians. About 500 Israeli settlers, some of them extremists, live in enclaves near the disputed holy site, guarded by Israeli soldiers who control part of the city where about 170,000 Palestinians live.

The other new heritage site is the traditional tomb of the biblical Rachel on the outskirts of Bethlehem, about 12 miles north of Hebron. Israel's West Bank separation barrier juts into Bethlehem to put the site under Israeli control. The 30-foot-high concrete wall is a constant irritant to Palestinians there, who reject Israel's claims that the barrier is meant to keep out attackers and consider it a land grab.

Altogether, about 150 sites are on the national heritage list.

Netanyahu convened his Cabinet at Tel Hai, location of a legendary 1920 battle between early Jewish settlers and Arab attackers.

The prime minister, who angered settlers by agreeing under U.S. pressure to slow settlement construction, said the two West Bank sites must be preserved because they show Israel's ancient ties to the land.

"Our existence here doesn't just depend on the might of the military or our economic and technological strength," Netanyahu said. "It is anchored first and foremost in our national and emotional legacy."

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib condemned the decision and warned it could take the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a dangerous direction.

"We believe that this particular violation is very dangerous because it might add to the religious nature of the conflict," Khatib said. Palestinians claim the West Bank as part of their future state.

Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said the list was not meant to draw borders. "The purpose of the list ... is to single out sites that are of great importance to the Jewish people," he said.

Israeli settlers and their backers, who oppose giving up control of any of the West Bank, were pleased with the move and said they would press for additional biblical sites to be added to the list.

Arieh Eldad, a lawmaker from the hard-line National Union party, toured the Hebron site Sunday.

"There is no Israeli heritage without the Bible, there is no Zionism without the Bible," Eldad told Israel Radio. "This is the real birthplace of the Jewish people, here it all began."

Also in the West Bank, about 50 Jewish settlers stormed into the town of Jericho in the Jordan River valley late Sunday, heading for an ancient synagogue. The military said Israeli soldiers were sent to the area, though it is under Palestinian control, and removed the settlers.

U.S. Under-Secretary of State William Burns, who last week paid a visit to Syria as part of the Obama administration's efforts to improve relations with Damascus, described the talks he held with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as "candid."

"We talked candidly about the areas in which we disagree, but also identified the areas of common ground on which we can build," Burns said in a statement after his talks with the Syrian President.

"There are challenges on the road but my meeting with President Assad leaves me hopeful that we can make progress together in the interest of both our countries," he added.

His talks with the Syrian leader came a day after U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Robert Ford, an experienced career diplomat and Arab specialist, as the first US ambassador to Syria in five years.

On Ford's nomination as the Syrian ambassador, Burns said that the move reflects "America's readiness to improve relations and to co-operate in the pursuit of just, lasting and comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis".

Burns' visit to Damascus is a part of his regional tour and is seen as a reflection of President Obama's policy of engaging all Middle Eastern countries, including former foes like Syria and Iran, in direct talks.

However, Obama renewed the previously existing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria in May 2009, citing "serious concerns" over the country's behavior in the region. The sanctions prohibit arms export to Syria, blocks Syrian airlines from operating in the U.S., and freeze assets of a number of individuals.

The U.S. accuses Syria of supporting Hamas and Hezbollah in their conflicts with Israel and of allowing Iranian-supported Islamic militants to enter Iraq through its borders.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush had imposed the sanctions on Syria in May 2004, accusing Damascus of supporting terrorism in the region, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and trying to undermine U.S. operations in Iraq.

Burns is the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Syria after Washington recalled its ambassador to Damascus in February 2005, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hariri's assassination was blamed on Syria. Though Syria has denied any involvement in Hariri's assassination, it forced Damascus to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, thereby ending three decades of occupation.

However, relations between Damascus and Washington have improved considerably after Obama took office. President al-Assad had indicated in March 2009 that his country was interested in holding direct peace talks with Israel, provided the United States acted as a mediator. Damascus believes that U.S. mediation would help in prompting Israel to honor any deals agreed in the negotiations.

Earlier, the governments of Israel and Syria had begun indirect talks under the mediation of Turkey in Istanbul in May 2008, but the negotiations were halted after Israel launched an offensive against the Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip that December.

Prior to the Turkey-mediated indirect talks, another round of peace negotiations between the two countries had broken down in 2000 over a dispute on the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.