Abbas nods French initiative, Israel rejects it as U.S. urges patience

Golan clashes leave hundreds of protesters killed or wounded

Israeli leftists protest against Netanyahu, support Palestinian statehood

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cautiously welcomed a French proposal to convene Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Paris to try to renew collapsed peace talks.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe this week offered to host talks to discuss ideas for a Palestinian state raised last month by President Barack Obama, aiming to avert a showdown at the United Nations in September.

"We said that in principle that this initiative is acceptable," Abbas told Reuters, two days after his talks with Juppe in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Abbas said the French plan "talks about President Obama's vision which he spoke about a (Palestinian) state with the '67 borders with borders with Israel, Egypt and Jordan."

Under the plan discussed with Juppe, "neither side would carry out unilateral actions," Abbas added.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has yet to respond publicly to the French proposal, has rejected any withdrawal to the borders existing before Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 war, insisting such a frontier would be "indefensible."

In a statement after Netanyahu met with Juppe the Israeli leader said he asked France to continue efforts to secure the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held since his capture in a cross-border raid in June 2006.

"I would be lying if I said I was very optimistic. I am slightly optimistic," Juppe said after his talks with Netanyahu.

The French proposal calls for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to meet this month or by early July with an eye to reviving talks which broke off last year in a dispute on Jewish settlement building in land Palestinians seek for a state.

The Palestinians plan to unilaterally seek U.N. recognition of statehood in September -- a step Israel strongly opposes fearing it could end up isolated internationally.

The United States has already said it opposes the plan, which could kill off the initiative in the Security Council before it can reach the General Assembly.

France, which is also one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, has not yet decided whether to back the Palestinians, Juppe said.

"We are convinced that if nothing happens here between now and September the situation will be very difficult for everyone at the time of the United Nations General Assembly," Juppe said during his visit this week.

"We have to avoid such a situation and the only way to avoid it is to do what we are proposing, that's to say return to the (negotiating) table," Juppe said.

Meanwhile, Israel, with U.S. backing, accused Syria of orchestrating deadly confrontations on a ceasefire line between the two countries as a distraction from Damascus's bloody crackdown on an 11-week-old revolt.

Syria said 23 people, including a woman and a child, were killed and 350 wounded when Israeli troops fired on Palestinian protesters who surged against the fortified boundary fence on Syria's Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said live Israeli fire had caused casualties and U.N. monitors were "seeking to confirm facts."

Russia voiced "deep concern" about the flare-up and the shooting of unarmed demonstrators, while the United States said it was "deeply troubled" by attempts to breach the Golan disengagement line and urged restraint on both sides.

Washington backed Israel's charge that by permitting the protests to take place, President Bashar al-Assad was trying to shift world attention from the security forces' killing of at least 1,100 Syrians engaged in anti-government protests.

"This is clearly an attempt by Syria to incite these kinds of protests," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, saying Damascus hoped to divert attention from its own problems."

"Israel, like any sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself," Toner added.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "The events along the Syrian border did not erupt by chance. There is an attempt being made here to heat up the border and to try and breach our borders."

Netanyahu, speaking to reporters at Israel's parliament, said Israel would defend its borders and charged Syria with "an attempt here to divert international attention from what is going on inside Syria and the difficult events in Hama."

The protest was held to mark the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured the Golan Heights, as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip where Palestinians want to establish a state.

Although Israel and Syria are technically at war, and Syria is home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war of Israel's foundation, the Golan Heights had long been quiet.

That changed on May 15, when scores of flag-waving Palestinian activists flattened a fence on the demarcation line and briefly rallied inside Israeli-controlled territory.

Rattled by the breach, Israel beefed up its defenses and warned that lethal force could be used. A Reuters reporter at the scene saw Israeli sharpshooters firing at demonstrators at the fence and 10 people taken away on stretchers by comrades.

With U.S.-brokered peace efforts stalled, some Palestinians inspired by non-violent popular revolts sweeping the Arab world are trying to adopt similar tactics against Israel.

Israeli leaders said they feared such marches would recur ahead of the Palestinians' campaign to secure recognition of their claim to statehood at the United Nations in September.

The official Syrian news agency SANA put the death toll at 23 and quoted Health Minister Wael al-Halki as saying a woman and child were among the dead. It said 350 people suffered gunshot wounds.

The Israeli military said it believed a blast from what it said was a Syrian land mine detonated accidentally by petrol bombs thrown by protesters had caused 10 casualties. But it gave no overall figure for the dead and wounded.

Before the Golan violence, Israel rarely censured the Assad government for its domestic crackdowns.

Successive Israeli governments have sought peace with Assad, seeing his government as a possible anchor for wider Israeli-Arab accommodation.

Some 20 leading Israeli leftists have signed a petition urging European leaders to support Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

The petition, delivered to European ambassadors based in Israel, said UN endorsement of Palestinian statehood would not harm Israeli interests.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech in Washington and the sweeping support he received from the US Congress shows that the peace process has reached its end,” the statement said, stressing that Israel has a choice between recognizing a Palestinian state or a renewed wave of violence.

Among those signing the petition were the former speaker of the Knesset parliament, Avraham Burg, former foreign ministry director general Alon Liel, a Nobel laureate, writers and academics.

Liel said he was worried about Israel becoming an apartheid state if the diplomatic stalemate continued. “I think that if there is no vote in September on recognizing a Palestinian state, we shall find ourselves sliding even more rapidly into the slippery slope of a shared state, which I view as a true catastrophe.”

The signatories argued that given the mutual suspicions between the sides and current foot-dragging, a Palestinian declaration of independence was not just a right, but also a positive, constructive step.

The petitioners said that, as Israeli citizens, they will support a Palestinian declaration of statehood based on the 1967 lines, with agreed land swaps.

The petition also called for Gaza , which is controlled by Hamas, to be included as part of a future Palestinian state as long as it is ruled by a Palestinian leadership that recognizes Israel’s existence.

The petition followed weekend surveys in the Israeli newspapers that showed solid support for Netanyahu’s hawkish speech to Congress, and a 13 per cent rise in his popularity compared to recent polls taken before his trip to the US.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said Palestinians are not seeking to isolate Israel on the international stage, but will pursue their unilateral drive for UN recognition of statehood unless peace talks resume. “We do not want to isolate Israel or to de-legitimize it. On the contrary, we want to co-exist with it,” he said.

Speaking in Doha ahead of a meeting of Arab leaders to discuss the diplomatic deadlock, Abbas said negotiations remained the best option as far as the Palestinians were concerned.

“We will review the steps we will take – persisting with negotiations as the fundamental way to achieving a resolution,” he said. “If we fail in reaching this solution, then we confirm that we will go to the United Nations.”

The Palestinians are expected to ask the UN general assembly in September to endorse an independent state, even without signing a peace agreement with Israel.

It is expected a large majority of UN member states would vote in favor of such a resolution. Both Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama have criticized such a move, arguing that bilateral negotiations are the only way to end the impasse.