France’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative likely dead-on-arrival

Sunday 29/05/2016
Bonne chance, Paris

What is France doing? For several months now, the Hollande government has been trying to organise a 20-nation ministerial conference designed to relaunch the mori­bund Israeli-Palestinian peace process but to what end?

The original date was May 30th but Paris postponed the gather­ing when it was announced that US Secretary of State John Kerry would not be available. Kerry ap­parently found an opening in his schedule so the conference is to convene June 3rd.

Kerry’s evident lack of en­thusiasm reveals that he has no intention to expend considerable energy on the French initiative. He tried to revive the peace process in the early months of his term as secretary of State only to see the effort crash in April 2014. With less than eight months remaining in his tenure, why would he want to revisit the issue?

The proposed French conclave is to include a number of Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but neither Israel nor the Palestinians were invited. Palestin­ian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas supports the initiative but Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would not attend even if asked.

When French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault visited Israel for discussions about the confer­ence, Netanyahu told him in no uncertain terms that “the only way to advance true peace between us and the Palestinians is through di­rect talks, without preconditions”. This is a completely logical posi­tion for him to take as Israel holds all the cards, monopolises coercive power and continues to unilater­ally pursue its settlement agenda and associated ethnic cleansing. So why not talk mano a mano?

To their credit, the French realise that the current situation is unten­able in the long — and maybe even medium — term and also under­stand that Islamist extremism is fuelled in large part by continued frustration over the ongoing hu­miliation of Palestinians.

“This initiative is necessary because if nothing happens, if there is no strong French initiative, then colonisation, attacks, terrorist attacks and several conflicts are going to continue,” Ayrault said recently. He is right.

The reality is this: Israel op­poses it — both in principle and in terms of what it aims to achieve, a two-state solution — and Kerry is attending simply to cover Israel’s back. The odds of this initiative moving forward are slim.

Rumours have bounced around Washington in recent months that US President Barack Obama is pre­paring to do something dramatic concerning Israeli-Palestinian peace before he leaves office in January.

Some have said the United States may support — or at least not veto — a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Israeli set­tlement building. Such a resolution would be consistent with official US policy but Mark Toner, a US State Department spokesman, has said repeatedly that “our position hasn’t changed in terms of action on this issue at the UN Security Council”, meaning the United States will veto criticism of Israel.

Moreover, the United States has historically wanted to keep the peace process, even when it is on life support, a US monopoly. Neither the United Nations nor France will be allowed to assume America’s self-appointed leader­ship role.

All of this plays perfectly into Netanyahu’s hands.

Do not forget that this is an election year in the United States. Obama will not want to say or do anything that undermines Hillary Clinton or that forces her to refute him.

Obama tried twice to move the peace process forward, in his first term with special Middle East negotiator George Mitchell and in his second with Kerry’s attempt. Both times Obama was stymied by Netanyahu, who openly supported Mitt Romney against Obama in 2012 and led the lobbying cam­paign in Washington against the Iran nuclear deal.

What could Obama gain at this point in his presidency by either joining a French-led initiative (that Israel opposes) or taking a bold step at the United Nations (that Israel opposes)?

More likely Obama will give an address after the November US election in which he lays out his view of a just-and-fair Israeli- Palestinian peace. That’s what Bill Clinton did in January 2001, in the final days of his presidency.

In a speech before a pro-peace Jewish-American organisation, Clinton outlined the proposed “parameters” for a two-state solu­tion, a proposal that effectively foreshadowed the Saudi peace initiative that was endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 (and was opposed by Israel). The audience applauded Clinton’s speech. The Israelis ignored it; after all, Clinton was history at that point. The Palestinians continued to see their hopes evaporate.

Bonne chance, Paris.