Abbas in Paris as France mulls recognising Palestine

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in Paris on Thursday as Europe reflects more and more openly on the prospect of recognising an independent Palestine.

Any French move to welcome a Palestinian state into the community of nations would be made jointly with the European Union, and would be seen as an attempt to give a jolt to the stalled Middle East peace process with Israel.

Abbas was due at the Elysee Palace later Thursday, having said he is seeking Sarkozy's advice on the Palestinian Authority's drive to convince the world to accept its statehood even ahead of an ever elusive peace deal.

Thus far, most world powers have been reluctant to recognise Palestine before it becomes a viable entity within agreed borders, but now some are starting to think recognition could revive the stalled search for peace.

"It's a question we must reflect upon and upon which we are reflecting. It will be asked in September or October," France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters at a diplomatic lunch on Tuesday.

Juppe said France was working with its European Union partners to try to get Israelis and Palestinians "back around the negotiating table" and that this could lead to statehood recognition later this year.

Sarkozy has himself been less forthcoming on the issue, and in January last year was careful to distance himself from his then foreign minister Bernard Kouchner's suggestion that France might unilaterally recognise Palestine.

But Abbas' visit comes at a time when France, which holds the G8 and G20 presidencies, is adopting a more muscular foreign policy designed to revive its global role, and in particular its position in the Arab world.

France led international calls for action against Moamer Kadhafi's Libyan regime, spearheading coalition air strikes and becoming the first power to adopt ties with the rebel shadow government in Benghazi.

Paris has not been in the vanguard of calls for Palestinian recognition, several Latin American states have already taken that step, but it backs the goal of statehood by the time of the UN General Assembly in September.

But, as ever, profound differences remain between Israeli and Palestinian camps that could yet delay a vote -- and the peace process itself broke down in September last year after the briefest of revivals.

Ongoing Jewish settlement construction on occupied territory claimed by Palestinians has sharpened divisions, but the wider international community is also divided on how best to push the talks forward.

The "Middle East Quartet" -- a diplomatic body overseeing the peace "roadmap" made up of Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the United States -- postponed a meeting that was due on April 15.

Europe hoped to announce the "parameters" of an imagined final agreement, but its partners in the process were not ready.

Last week, the Palestinian Authority urged the United States to take a clear position in support of a Palestinian State based on its 1967 borders -- those used before the Six Day War with Israel -- with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Ahead of Abbas's visit, the French foreign ministry said the Palestinians are "more than ever ready to establish a state and run it in a credible and peaceful way" and said it would host a donors' conference in June.

Abbas' government hopes the conference will raise billions of dollars in direct budget aid and act as a signal that the world is ready to recognise it.

But France also said that during the visit it would push for an end to the division of Palestinian territory between a West Bank controlled by Abbas and his Fatah movement and a Gaza Strip run by the rival Islamist group Hamas.

© 2011 AFP

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