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21 September 2011 - Press briefing by Mr. Alain Juppé, Minsitre d’Etat, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs

The French President devoted the bulk of his speech at the United Nations General Assembly to the question of the Middle East and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You’ll have noted in his speech his desire to create a new dynamic, first of all on the basis of one observation: that the extraordinary upheavals that have taken place in the Arab world - generally called the Arab Spring - make the status quo and a stalemate in the situation more unacceptable than ever.

It’s more necessary than ever to act. We’re saying this to Israel, as a friend of Israel. Everything around Israel has changed: in Egypt, in Syria, and relations with Turkey are strained. There’s no other way for Israel to guarantee in the long term her security, to which France is very deeply committed. You’ll have noted in President Sarkozy’s speech the sentence where he explains that, in the event of a threat to Israel, France would immediately stand by Israel’s side. But - I repeat - the only way to achieve peace and security is by negotiating and concluding a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

We’re saying to our Palestinian friends that we understand their impatience, their desire to act and the steps that led them to bring the matter to the United Nations, but that the procedure they’ve chosen is most certainly doomed to failure.

In these conditions, what can we do and how do we act? I’d like to emphasize the four central themes of President Sarkozy’s proposals.

First of all, changing our method - quite simply because the current method hasn’t succeeded for many years, not to mention decades - and adopting a more collective approach bringing together all those who can help break the deadlock in the situation: that is, most probably, all the permanent members of the Security Council, the European Union and big European states that are not permanent Security Council members, and the main Arab states involved in the region. Second theme to work on: we must create the conditions for resuming the negotiations. There’s no other possible route in order to achieve peace, guarantee Israel’s security and finally give the Palestinians what they have a right to: namely, a fully-fledged state.

The broad parameters of these negotiations are known; I won’t dwell on them. They’re the Madrid principles, the road map, the Arab peace initiative, President Obama’s speech on 19 May and the parameters agreed by the European Union. Everyone knows the aim of the negotiations, too: mutual recognition of two nation-states for two peoples, established on the basis of the 1967 lines, with agreed and equivalent exchanges of territory. President Sarkozy really insisted that, if we sincerely want to relaunch this negotiation process, we mustn’t set any preconditions. Of course, once they’re sitting around the table again, it will be up to the Israelis and Palestinians to find ways of moving forward and adopting the agreements that will lead to peace.

The third crux of the proposals is that these negotiations mustn’t go on forever. So France is proposing that precise deadlines be set enabling the progress of the negotiations to be assessed: the resumption of talks within a month - there’s no reason to delay -, six months to reach agreement on borders and security, and a year to come to a definitive agreement. Along the way, France is proposing to host a donors’ conference as early as this autumn, which could also make it possible to move ahead with the negotiations.

Finally, the fourth point: as part of this approach, President Sarkozy has proposed to work on raising Palestine’s status within the United Nations and thus take the first step along the path to creating a fully-fledged state by recognizing for Palestine the status of non-member, observer state.

That puts into perspective President Sarkozy’s speech this morning and France’s broad proposals.

President Sarkozy informed President Mahmoud Abbas of them yesterday and, as you’ve doubtless heard, the Palestinians have just stated that their reaction to the French proposals is positive and they’re ready to work on them.

This morning President Sarkozy also met Prime Minister Netanyahu, who noted the French proposals. The Israeli Prime Minister and the French Head of State decided to continue their contacts. (…)./.

Q: What comments did Mr. Netanyahu make regarding the French proposal? Even if the proposal is well received by the Palestinians, do they still plan to go to the Security Council; if so, what will France’s position be?

Regarding the first point, I told you what I had to say, i.e. that Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken note of the French proposals and I trust you to decipher what this diplomatic language means. Regarding the second point, it’s up to us to persuade the Palestinians to give up the initiative they’ve taken. We simply told them that it wouldn’t be successful given the position taken by the United States. For the moment, it’s not a question of how France would vote since the vote hasn’t been scheduled, and all of our efforts that I’ve just reiterated are aimed specifically at ensuring that this question doesn’t arise at the Security Council.

Q: When President Sarkozy said: "let’s change our method" does that mean ending U.S. control of the issue?

Obviously, I can’t repeat your expression "U.S. control." The United States has a key role to play in the search for peace; we simply believe that they won’t achieve it on their own. Furthermore, that’s what we’ve noted for a number of years now. We think that the EU has a role to play, that all the permanent members of the Security Council have a role to play and that the Arab countries, Egypt for example, and others - also have a role to play, which means that this proposal assumes a more collective approach.

Q: Do you have confidence in the Israeli and Palestinian leaders? If all the diplomatic efforts fail, don’t you think we’re heading into the unknown?

To answer your question, the response is obviously yes. If we’re trying to take initiatives, to move things forward, to create a new dynamic, it’s because we think the status quo is appalling and intolerable for everyone, that it can only lead to a stalemate, and perhaps unfortunately to the resumption of violence. So from this point of view, we’re certain that we have to get back to the negotiating table and move forward. Regarding the first point, if there isn’t a minimum degree of trust between the two parties, then we’ll never achieve anything. Our role is precisely to calm things down, to calm the emotions that have always marked these relations.

Q: Do you consider the leaders of both sides to be credible?

These are the leaders of Israel and Palestine. It’s not up to us to change them or choose them. We’re telling them to sit down at the negotiating table and we’re telling them that France trusts them since it’s a friend of both Israel and the Palestinians.

Q: Minister, in President Sarkozy’s speech, there was a proposal for a new status for Palestine and also insistence that the negotiations should resume without preconditions. Does that mean that in terms of France’s position the two things are linked?

France is proposing an approach, it’s not proposing a package that’s all sown up. We’re going to work on this now with all those who want to work on it: the Palestinians, we’re continuing our contacts with the Israelis. We’re also going to work with our European partners and the Arab States that wish to do so. All this will be clarified but in our mind the two things must in fact go hand in hand, i.e. the resumption of the negotiations and the progress with respect to enhancing the status of the Palestinians at the UN General Assembly.

Q: The timeframe seems to greatly resemble what Lady Ashton herself worked on within the Quartet. Does that mean that President Sarkozy took inspiration from the work that was done at the EU level and are we moving toward a common European position?

Regarding the first point, we’re working very closely with the High Representative and Mr. Tony Blair. We hope that the Quartet will be successful. We said that we would support these proposals provided they were acceptable - or that they will be acceptable - both to the Palestinians and the Israelis and that they were balanced. The Quartet has a very useful role to play.

Regarding the question of a common European position, that’s something that we’ll continue to discuss. To be frank, there are differences of opinion between the Europeans.

Q: What more can you offer than the Quartet? What will happen before Friday’s speech?

Regarding the first point, the answer is quite simple; the Quartet doesn’t include the five Security Council members. By proposing to change our method, we aim to expand the circle in order to involve the actors that we believe have a role to play in the negotiation. Secondly, we’ll see what President Abbas does and says on Friday. I think that he’ll do what he announced, i.e. submit a request to the UN Secretary-General to include in the Security Council’s agenda the admission of Palestine as a UN member State. As you know, there’s a process: the Security Council will forward the matter to the Security Council which will establish a committee to review this application, then the matter will come before the Security Council itself. We therefore have some time ahead of us and we want to use this time to work on the French proposals.

Q: Regarding the timetable for the initiatives, when will you submit the request for observer status to the General Assembly and when will the timetable that President Sarkozy mentioned in his speech start? Is there a deadline?

As I told you, President Sarkozy made proposals, they’re on the table, we’re going to work on them with all those who want to work on them, so I don’t have an answer today to all the questions you’ve asked.

Regarding the second question, when will the negotiations begin, I can give you an idea of the mood: as swiftly as possible. There’s no reason why not, if we don’t set any conditions that will drag things out, since all the parameters that I’ve mentioned, the Madrid Principles, etc. are on the table. Secondly, the timetable and the General Assembly’s overall approach with respect to recognizing the status of non-member observer State for Palestine will be included in the discussion and the plan that we’ll draw up together.

Q: Can you say you are confident that you have less than nine votes at the Security Council to avoid a veto?

I don’t want to place myself in a voting situation at the Security Council. Regarding the question of knowing whether there will be nine votes or not, we’re not there yet, and we’re going to work - within the timeframe of the current session of the General Assembly, i.e. by the end of the year - to ensure that the deadlock is broken.

Q: What will you offer the Palestinians in exchange for giving up their preconditions?

We are making them a comprehensive proposal, telling them that we want negotiations to resume and that if this process gets under way, France, with others, is prepared to study a Security Council proposal that would be the first step on the path toward granting them the status of non-member observer state. It’s an extremely important proposal. I believe that hasn’t escaped you.

Q: How do you expect to overcome the reluctance, if not the probable opposition, of the Americans with regard to observer state status?

As you heard in the President’s speech, we have asked the Palestinians to pledge not to use the possibilities that come with gaining observer status in ways that could be negative or generate conflict—that is, to pledge not to go to the International Criminal Court—before achieving a definitive agreement that could lead to their recognition as a full-fledged state.

Q: As for the requirement that the Palestinians give up their bid to the Security Council to get your support at the General Assembly, why wouldn’t they go to the Security Council at the same time as going to the General Assembly?

I’ve already told you what the timetable is. We think we probably have several weeks before a Security Council vote. We can opt to use pressure or not to use pressure, but we have several weeks in which to hone the proposal we made and the comprehensive approach I indicated. [That approach consists of] a resumption of negotiations without preconditions but with a timetable—a timetable that includes consideration of taking the matter before the General Assembly in order to grant [the Palestinians] non-member observer status. All that will be part of the effort we’re embarking on now.

Q: What’s the difference between the status the Palestinians currently have and the project you’re proposing?

The difference may appear modest to some, but to others it appears extremely important. It’s a state status they currently don’t have—that of UN non-member state, but as a state all the same, an observer state. That will notably allow them to apply for membership in a certain number of international organizations. Their candidacy will be examined as a state. It’s an extremely important step.

Q: I would like to understand correctly, you would support the Palestinians to go to the General Assembly to ask for observer status. Now, their intentions if they go, and they announced it many times—they want to be recognized as a State within the borders of 1967. Will that be acceptable for the European Union and France?

I told you that there are two aspects to our proposal: the resumptions of negotiations (and one of the principles on which that resumption would be based is indeed the 1967 borders) and on that basis, carrying out mutually agreed-on and equivalent exchanges of land, which is also part of the package, of course. At the same time, we approached the General Assembly seeking their recognition as an observer state, and we will see how the two things work both time-wise and in substance.

Q: You said that in meetings between President Sarkozy and the Israeli Prime Minister, the latter took note of your proposals, but we know quite well what derailed the negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis—it was the inability of the Americans to get their strategic ally, Israel, to freeze settlement activity. What more can you do to convince the Israelis to return to the table and to move forward?

Your question is quite simple, as one of the French proposals does in fact consist of abandoning all preconditions, including the settlement freeze, because we think that’s a bad approach. President Sarkozy said so several times: if we start establishing preconditions of this type, we will never reach our goals—that’s what’s new.

Q: I remember the warm welcome Hillary Clinton extended to you a few weeks, a few months before the conference you proposed, which never took place but was supposed to be held in June. It was put off until the fall. Do you have any assurances [that it will be held]?

Not assurances, but prospects. We will discuss all that. The point of President Sarkozy’s initiative was to move the lines. A new idea has been put on the table, a new dynamic is being created and the reactions are positive—reactions of expectation. Now we will delve more deeply into all of that. He gave his speech barely two hours ago. Give us time to work on it.

Q:You haven’t coordinated with the U.S. administration?

We’ve long coordinated with them. We’ve been talking about all this for years and years. So we’re very familiar with each other’s positions. I spoke about it with Hillary Clinton, I went to see her in July after coming back from the Middle East to discuss the parameters proposed by France, we’ve maintained close contact, and now we’ll see how all of this can be succeed.

Q: For a reporter who follows French politics, it is perfectly clear that France, and quite specifically France, understands the Arab street perfectly well. At this particular moment, with all the diplomatic initiatives, knowing that not the Arab leaders but the Arab street—with whom Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech is totally in synch—is very suspicious, isn’t France, along with the Americans and the rest of the world, concerned about credibility in the street? As we’ve seen, there was a very positive side to France and England in Libya, but there’s also another Arab world that is expecting and practically accusing the Americans of not being fair. Isn’t France worried about its credibility and image in the Arab World?

I’m not sure I understand your question. That we have some credibility in the "Arab street," to use your expression, is an observation, a fact. We saw it in Benghazi, we saw it in Tripoli, and we saw it elsewhere as well. The thing that deeply motivates the President is the search for peace. We cannot maintain the status quo; we cannot continue depriving the Palestinian people of what they have been promised for so long. Let me remind you that the idea that there would one day be a Palestinian State was a promise made to them, by the United States among others. At the same time, we cannot permanently deprive Israel of its security, of the recognition of its existence and its integrity. We must get out of all that. What motivates us is the effort to help break the deadlock. We see there’s once again a deadlock, and we think French ideas can perhaps, can certainly move the lines. That’s what we’re working on. I am aware of the difficulty, I am aware of the objectives expressed here and there, the strength of conviction that will be needed, but I think the strength of President Sarkozy’s convictions is above average… Thank you very much!

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