France is hosting foreign ministers from major powers to put Israel-Palestinian peacemaking back on the international agenda and to bring the two sides back to direct talks by the end of the year.
With US efforts to broker a deal on a Palestinian state on Israel-occupied land in cold storage for two years, France has lobbied the key players in the peace process to attend the Paris conference.
However, neither Israel nor the Palestinians have been invited.
In his opening speech on Friday, French President Francois Hollande urged Israelis and Palestinians to make a “courageous choice for peace”, adding that the solution had to involve the “whole region”.
“The discussion on the conditions for peace between Israelis and Palestinians must take into account the entire region,” he said.
“The threats and priorities have changed. The changes make it even more urgent to find a solution to the conflict, and this regional upheaval creates new obligations for peace. We must prove it to the international community.”
France has grown frustrated over the absence of progress towards a “two-state solution” since the collapse of the last round of talks in April 2014, arguing that letting the status quo prevail is like “waiting for a powder keg to explode”.
The gathering of ministers in Paris includes the Middle East Quartet – which comprises the US, Russia, the EU and the UN – as well as the Arab League, the UN Security Council and about 20 countries.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister, said direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians “do not work”.
“Currently everything is blocked. We don’t want to act in the place of the Israelis and Palestinians but we want to help them,” he told France Info radio.
The Paris meeting, the first international conference on the issue since Annapolis in the US in 2007, will not touch on any of the chronic core differences between the two sides.
Its initial focus is to reaffirm existing international texts and resolutions that are based on achieving a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip co-existing with Israel.
The Palestinians say Israeli settlement expansion in occupied territory is diminishing any prospect for the viable state they seek, with a capital in Arab East Jerusalem.
Israel has demanded tighter security measures and a crackdown on Palestinians it claims attacked Israeli civilians.
It also says Jerusalem is Israel’s indivisible capital and cannot be divided.
While objecting to the French initiative, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has stopped short of saying Israel would boycott the conference.
‘Flicker of hope’
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from al-Ram, a Palestinian town north of Jerusalem, quoted Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, as remarking in an opinion piece in the Israeli media that the Paris meeting offers a “flicker of hope”.
“The Palestinian leadership is welcoming this Paris conference,” she said
“The hope is that this conference will get some sort of framework back on the table of the previous accords.”
The Paris meeting will try to establish working groups comprising various countries that would meet in the coming months and tackle all aspects of the peace process.
Some groups would strive to create economic incentives and security guarantees to convince both sides to return to talks.
Others would focus on trying to find ways to break deadlocks that scuttled previous negotiations or look at whether other peace efforts such as a 2002 Arab initiative remain viable.
A senior US state department official said John Kerry, the secretary of state, would bring no specific proposals to the conference.
US delegates will be in Paris “to listen to the ideas that the French and others may have, and talk through with them what might make sense going forward,” the official said, dampening expectations.
“There is a lot of pushback from the Israelis that this meeting is taking place at all,” said Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from Paris.
“The French are playing a key role in trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Observers say this is more about French politics than geopolitics. France is the main diplomatic powerhouse at the moment and observers say they could be trying to show off what they can achieve.”
The Palestinians have meanwhile shelved plans to push for a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements to see how the French initiative pans out.