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French conference may be moved to early June

U.S. considering whether Secretary of State John Kerry will attend

Washington CNN —  

France has postponed an international conference on Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to ensure U.S. officials are able to attend – but American political currents may stymie their efforts to fully engage the Obama administration even with its participation.

The conference, originally scheduled for May 30, will now take place at some point this summer, perhaps at the beginning of June, according to a European diplomat. U.S. officials had said that Secretary of State John Kerry would not be able to attend on the 30th, Memorial Day, in part because of travel plans.

There may be other factors at play, however. The White House is likely reluctant to see the launch of a Mideast peace process over which it might have little control, for starters. And the political climate, with what is expected to be a bruising general election campaign set to begin, doesn’t encourage administration engagement either.

A European diplomat close to the talks said discussions are now underway between France and the U.S. about Kerry’s presence. “They’re looking for a date,” the diplomat said of the U.S. and France. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters. “It’s more a logistical issue than anything else and they should know in a few days.”

“Right now, the balance is now on the side that they will come,” the diplomat said of the U.S.

One former Middle East negotiator said the timing isn’t good for the U.S.

“At least between now and November, there isn’t going to be any great effort by the United States to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” said Aaron David Miller, who once served in the State Department and is now with the Wilson Center, referring to the presidential elections.

The administration has “its own ideas for what it wants to do” on Mideast peace, Miller added, ideas that he predicted it will probably lay out in a set of “principles” between November and January, as the White House tries to establish President Barack Obama’s legacy.

The White House will also want to protect the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, from attack by Republicans who would probably use any peace effort to criticize her track record as secretary of state.

“I just can’t imagine this administration wants to give Republicans any more ammunition to hammer the Democratic nominee,” Miller said.

The French effort was the product of frustration that U.S.-led attempts to establish a peace based on two states, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians, have been essentially moribund since 2014. French diplomats warn that the stalemate will lead to frustration and eventual violence.

But their proposed conference hasn’t been welcomed by Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office released a statement on April 28 saying that Israel stood ready to begin direct bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians.

“Any other diplomatic initiative distances the Palestinians from direct negotiations,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the U.S. is “interested in, as the secretary said, in advancing a two-state solution and to listening to ideas on how to do that.”

Kirby added that, “There were a number of factors that led into our view that the 30th of May wasn’t going to work for the secretary, and some of that has to do with his travel schedule as well.”

The French are proposing a two-stage process to start, with the initial meeting involving about 20 countries, members of the so-called Quartet – the European Union, the U.S., Russia and the UN – as well as the Arab League. The group of countries that negotiated the Iran nuclear agreement will also take part — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as members of the European countries outside the EU, such as Switzerland and Norway, and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. A second meeting would include the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

Miller said the French need to consider the state of regional and Arab states’ ability to engage in a conference. Right now, as he put it, “most of the Arab states are offline.”

Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with the threat it sees in Iran and is bogged down by conflict in Yemen.

“Egyptians are not going to push the Israelis because they’re cooperating very intimately in Sinai, and the Palestinian Authority is fundamentally divided,” Miller said. “When you look at the chances of success, they’re not great.”