With clock ticking, Palestinians pin hopes on Paris summit

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — After a pair of diplomatic victories, the Palestinians are now setting their sights on a Mideast peace conference in France next month in a bid to rally support as they prepare for the uncertainty of the Trump administration.

The Palestinians are hopeful that a strong international endorsement in Paris will insulate them from what they fear will be a close alliance between President-elect Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

With their hopes for gaining independence in a deep freeze, the Palestinians had a rare week of optimism. First, the U.S. allowed the U.N. Security Council to adopt Resolution 2334, which declared Israeli settlements on occupied lands illegal. Then, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a farewell speech that harshly criticized Israeli settlements, saying Israel's continued construction was imperiling hopes for a peace agreement and endangering the country's democracy.

Palestinian officials say they are now counting on the French-hosted Mideast peace conference to build on the momentum and set clear terms of reference for any future negotiations with Israel. Some 70 nations are expected to attend, although Israel and the Palestinians will not be participating.

"The tools we have now are Security Council Resolution 2334, the Kerry speech and the Paris conference," said Husam Zumlot, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He said the Palestinians would seek to make the resolution "a base for any political initiative."

The Palestinians seek the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war, for an independent state. They say that Israeli settlements in these areas, now home to about 600,000 Israelis, are threatening their hopes for independence by taking in lands where they hope to establish their state.

The latest U.N. resolution, along with Kerry's speech, essentially endorsed the Palestinian position by calling for the pre-1967 lines to serve as the reference point for a final border. Netanyahu, who opposes a return to the 1967 lines, has condemned the moves as "skewed" and "shameful." Netanyahu says all disputes must be settled through direct negotiations without any preconditions, and that any international pressure undermines the negotiating process.

In a speech on Thursday, Netanyahu dismissed Israel's conflict with the Palestinians as a "marginal issue." The real issue, he said, is the "collapse of entire nations, of entire states in internal conflict, and in the wars of radical Islam over the future of the Arab world and the Muslim world."

With the gaps so wide, and with little faith in the U.S. as a neutral broker, the Palestinians have long tried to engage the international community in their conflict with Israel, seeking membership in the U.N. and other international bodies to promote their cause.

"We are going to end the old formula of direct talks with Israel under U.S. sponsorship," Zumlot said. "Now we have the tools to do that."

That strategy appears even more critical as Trump prepares to assume the presidency. While the president elect has not outlined a Mideast strategy, he has given a number of signs that he will be far more sympathetic to Netanyahu than was the Obama White House.

His campaign platform made no mention of Palestinian independence, an objective of Republican and Democrat presidents for the past two decades, and his choice for ambassador to Israel has strong ties to the West Bank settler movement. He has promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite Palestinian objections, and says Obama has treated Israel with "total disdain."

"Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!" Trump wrote on his Twitter feed shortly before Kerry's speech on Wednesday.

Netanyahu replied with his own tweet, thanking Trump for his "warm friendship" and "clear-cut support for Israel."

The Palestinians have said little about Trump publicly, but some officials privately say they are concerned about his budding friendship with Netanyahu. Earlier this month, Trump transition officials turned down a request to meet with a Palestinian delegation in Washington, after holding meetings with several senior Israeli officials, including the head of the Mossad spy agency.

Jibril Rajoub, a senior Palestinian official, played down the Trump-Netanyahu partnership. "What can this alliance to do us?" he said. "They know that any pressure tactics on us would lead to deterioration. That is not in the interest of anyone."

In the meantime, the Palestinians say they are pressing forward with an outreach program to the Israeli public in hopes of rallying support for moderates who oppose the policies of Netanyahu's nationalist government.

On Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hosted a group of 13 officials from the Israeli opposition Zionist Union party. Another group of Israeli leaders is expected on Jan. 5.

"We are reaching out to the Israeli society to remind everyone of the mutual interest in the two-state solution," said Ziad Darwesh, an official in the Palestinian outreach program. "We see changes in the Israeli society."

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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