France’s Sarkozy receives Abbas, says France wants viable Palestinian state

Israel’s designation of two shrines spark street confrontations, Abu Mazen warns of religious warfare

International community condemns Israel’s decision on shrines

Warnings against third Palestinian intifada

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday denounced Israeli "provocation" over two holy sites in the Israel-occupied Palestinian West Bank that could unleash a "religious war".

Israel's hard-line Prime Mistier Netanyahu sparked outrage in on Sunday when he said he hoped to include Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in a national heritage plan.

The two sites are in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. "Such provocation cannot contribute positively to the progress of the peace process," Abbas said, through an interpreter, following talks with EU parliament president Jerzy Buzek in Brussels.

"This could provoke a religious war" Abbas warned earlier, in comments to the Belgian Senate. The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where the biblical patriarch Abraham is believed buried, is sacred to both Muslims and Jews and has long been the scene of tensions.

Netanyahu's remarks had already drawn protests from Jordan, Egypt and Syria.

The democratically elected movement Hamas has also denounced the Israeli plan which they also see as provocation against Muslims.

Abbas, thanking the European Union for its financial and other support, said the EU "understands the real nature of this Israeli provocation."

"We believe indeed that negotiations are the only way to achieve peace," Abbas told reporters while reiterating his stance that Middle East peace talks cannot resume until Israel puts an end to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.

The creation of an independent Palestine is a "vital interest" for Israel, Abbas told the Belgian senators and deputies.

Abbas said that an appeal by the European Union in December for Jerusalem to become the future capital of two states, as part of a negotiated settlement, marked "the start of a political role" for the EU in the region.

"I would like the United States to adopt" such a declaration, he added.

The Palestinian leader singled out the "very good position" taken by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who has floated the idea of granting international recognition to a Palestinian state even before Israel has agreed on its borders.

"However I can't say that it reflects the French position," he added.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met Abbas in Paris on Monday, did not reprise his foreign minister's remarks, calling them "an idea for the future".

In Paris, French President Nicolas 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.

Speaking at a news conference in Paris with visiting Palestinian President Abbas, Sarkozy 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."

The Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership said last year it would seek U.N. 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.

It 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.

A think-tank close to the Israeli government says the Palestinians "have largely abandoned a negotiated settlement and instead are actively pursuing a unilateral approach to statehood" with serious implications for Israel.

"Palestinian unilateralism is modeled after Kosovo's February 2008 unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia," said a recent paper by Dan Diker of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The EU and the United States recognized the independence of Kosovo without the support of a Security Council resolution.

Palestinian leaders now believe "geopolitical conditions are ripe" to follow that path, Diker said.

The Obama administration criticized Israel Wednesday for designating two shrines on Palestinian territory as national heritage sites.

The criticism came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she hopes long-stalled peace talks between Israelis and the Palestinians will resume. Clinton told a congressional committee that groundwork is being laid to restart the talks with the help of U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

She didn't say exactly when the negotiations might resume but her remarks come amid a flurry of U.S. diplomatic activity in the region.

They come as the United States, Russia and their Mideast peace partners are trying to organize a strategy session among top diplomats in the Russian capital next month to prod the two sides to re-launch the negotiations.

"We hope that that will commence shortly," Clinton told the Senate Appropriations Committee, referring to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. "We think it is absolutely necessary that they begin to talk about the final-status issues that divide them, that have perpetuated the conflict over all of these years."

Underscoring those difficulties, the State Department on Wednesday sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government for adding two shrines in the West Bank to Israel's list of national heritage sites. The move, announced Sunday, sparked Palestinian protests and has drawn criticism from other quarters, including the United Nations.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the administration viewed the move as "provocative" and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the table.

Toner said U.S. displeasure with the designations of the Cave of the Patriarchs in the flashpoint town of Hebron and the traditional tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem had been conveyed to senior Israeli officials by American diplomats.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future state and also protested the Israeli move — a largely symbolic gesture — as a provocation and the move heightened long-standing tensions, particularly around the shrine in Hebron.

Jews revere the site as 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.

The U.S. and Russia are trying to convene a meeting of the so-called Quartet group of peacemakers — the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — in mid-March in Moscow, according to diplomats. A tentative date of March 19 has been discussed but is not yet confirmed.

The meeting would bring together Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton along with other European officials, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now the Quartet's special representative.

It would seek to build on the work of Mitchell, special U.S. envoy for Middle East peace, who has been shuttling back and forth to the region with only limited success in improving the atmosphere for resumption in peace talks.

If held as planned, the meeting would follow a recent flurry of U.S. diplomatic activity in the Middle East, including an upcoming trip to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden in the second week of March.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is in Israel now to participate in this week's U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue and Clinton's other two top deputies, Jacob Lew and William Burns, each returned from separate trips to the region in the past 10 days.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is due in Washington later this week for talks with senior administration officials and will see Clinton at the State Department on Friday.

Clinton herself just returned from a trip to Qatar and Saudi Arabia that coincided with a visit to Israel by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A Hamas spokesman, Hammad Ar-Ruqab, has warned that the Tel Aviv regime will see a third uprising from the Palestinian people, should Israeli forces continue to displace Palestinians and Judaize the occupied Palestinian land in Jerusalem (Al-Quds).

"The crimes of Israeli occupation of the West Bank have become a threat to the whole Palestinian question, especially the campaign to Judaize the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (Al-Quds)," Ar-Ruqab told hundreds of protestors who had taken to streets in Khan Younis on Tuesday to decry displacement of their fellow nationals in the West Bank.

The Hamas official also warned that the constant oppression would need only a small spark to ignite a third Intifada.

"We say to our people in the West Bank including Jerusalem (Al-Quds) that we are with them and will never remain, hands folded, toward their suffering. All the ongoing negotiations, and agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority do not represent the Palestinian people, and we will not be responsible for that, neither will the Palestinian people," Ar-Ruqab noted.

The Hamas official called on the Palestinians in the West Bank and inside Israel to protect the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Ar-Ruqab said the responsibility to protect Al-Aqsa lies with the Palestinians, but must also be firmly supported by Arab and Muslim nations.

The First Intifada started in December 1987 when the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza started a mass uprising against the Israeli occupation. It was followed by the Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

The Al-Aqsa Intifada began in September 2000, in response to then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The visit was seen by many as a provocative gesture aimed at inciting the Palestinians because the mosque is considered the third holiest site for Muslims.

The Islamic bloc at the UN calls for international action against Israel's decision to designate two shrines in the occupied West Bank as "national heritage sites."

Speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) UN ambassadors, Syria's United Nations Ambassador Bashar Jaafari condemned the "illegality and illegitimacy" of the Israeli decision which they view as "null and void."

They called on all relevant UN bodies to take urgent, required measures to force Israel to rescind this decision and urged the Security Council, the General Assembly and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to shoulder their responsibility.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday that the regime is planning to include Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil in a "national heritage plan."

Palestinian authorities have called on the international community to pressure Israel to renege on its decision. They say this move mirrors Israel's policy to establish the occupation.

The relieved Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has called for uprisings in the occupied West Bank in response to the Israeli plan.