France is clearly anxious to assume a central role in the Middle East peace process. As I mentioned on 26 January (see "A Middle-East Peace Conference?"), President Sarkozy and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, reiterated at the start of 2010 an idea they first mooted back in 2009 – that France should host a gathering in Paris whose sole agenda would be to ensure that peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel were resumed as quickly as possible. They invited the leaders of relevant countries to attend.
Events since then, far from decisive though they have been, seem to have overtaken that particular initiative. George Mitchell, the US special envoy, after a flurry of shuttle diplomacy, failed to bring the two parties face-to-face across a negotiating table, but he has succeeded in giving political substance to the concept of "proximity talks", as a first step leading to direct discussions. So the idea of kick-starting the process by way of a Paris peace conference seems to have been by-passed.
Undeterred, however, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, in an interview published today in the "Journal du Dimanche" calls for recognition of a Palestinian state even before its borders are agreed. It may be a little known fact, but France has been engaged in the "building of a reality", as Kouchner puts it – initiatives such as training Palestinian police and creating business in the West Bank.
"It follows," he says, "that one can envision the proclamation soon of a Palestinian state, and its immediate recognition by the international community, even before negotiating its borders."
This approach, of course, is entirely in line with that of the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who announced last summer that he was planning for the establishment, by the end of 2011, of "de facto Palestinian statehood" – which is not quite the same as a sovereign Palestinian state, but would undoubtedly be a step in that direction.
The French media were not slow to put two and two together. Shortly after Kouchner's remarks, they approached Fayyad for a interview. He spoke to them yesterday, and of course he entirely endorsed the French foreign minister's line:
"If," said Fayyad, "by mid-2011 the political process has not ended the occupation, I would bet that the developed state of Palestinian infrastructure and institutions will be such that the pressure will force Israel to give up its occupation."
Meanwhile, of course, although the idea of "proximity talks" is alive and buzzing, the parties are still coyly tip-toeing round the issue – a step forward here, a step backward there; here an assertion, there a denial.
On Thursday, Mahmoud Abbas met in Ramallah with US officials. Reports indicate that they gave him the assurances he was seeking regarding the renewal of talks with Israel, including a timetable for the move from indirect to direct talks and "clarifications" regarding the issue of the 1967 borders.
Accordingly the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, reported that negotiations were to be resumed, and that they would use the "proximity" talks format, similar to the model of the Israel-Syria talks that were mediated by Turkey. During the indirect phase of the talks, the Israeli and the Palestinian teams will sit in separate locations, and Mitchell and his staff will convey messages between them. The paper was unclear whether the talks will take place in Israel or in Washington, but it quoted a categoric statement by a "senior government official in Jerusalem" that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are to be renewed next week.
This source said that Israeli government officials had been told by Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger that the Palestinians were ready to resume indirect talks. Spindelegger, who visited Israel and the Palestinian territories last week, said PA president Mahmoud Abbas had told him he would consent to the United States' request to renew talks with Israel.
No sooner was all this on the wires, than it was positively rejected by the PA chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. No decision to resume talks had been taken. "We have asked for an official meeting of Arab ministers of the follow-up committee," said Erekat, "and have told them that our consultations, coordinations and inquiries are still ongoing with the Americans, Europeans, Russians and the United Nations."
As for Ha'aretz's report that Mahoud Abbas had told Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger that peace talks would resume shortly: "The one who announces the Palestinian position is the Palestinian side, not Haaretz or the Austrian foreign minister."
Meanwhile, to emphasise the increased prominence that France has been assuming in the peace process, it is reliably reported that Abbas is due to meet with the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, in Paris this very day, and with French President Nicolas Sarkozy tomorrow.