Paris conference: Hollande’s vanity project

Sunday 22/01/2017
French President François Hollande delivers his speech at the opening of the Middle East peace conference in Paris, on January 15th.

Given the limited scope and outcome of the Paris confer­ence on the Israeli-Pales­tinian conflict, Israel’s vocal denunciations seem misplaced. The conference, attended by delegates from 70 countries, was never designed to amount to peace talks; it was simply talks about talks, ones that represent a mirage on the diplo­matic horizon.

The conference’s communiqué condemned Palestinian violence and warned both sides against unilateral measures, reinforcing the myth of two equal parties to the conflict. It shied away from criticising US President Donald Trump’s desire to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite the obvious, dangerous and wide-ranging consequences of such an act.

French President François Hollande said the objective of the conference — his brainchild — was to reaffirm the international community’s commitment to a two-state solution, as if the international community is not still stubbornly wedded to the fantasy that a viable Palestinian state is possible under the crushing weight of Israel’s relentless colonisation.

The final statement was reportedly watered down, excluding reference to the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations, and calling on participants to consistently distinguish between Israel and its illegal settlements.

The former point aligns with Israel’s refusal to consider the internationally recognised 1967 borders and is thus tacit acceptance — some will understandably interpret it as encouragement — of its settlement enterprise. The second point cushions Israel from punitive measures regarding settlements, as if it is sufficient to penalise the country without penalising the party responsible for their construction and expansion.

Besides, those calling for a two-state solution include Israel’s closest allies, not out of sympathy with the Palestinians but out of a desire to safeguard Israel and maintain it as a Jewish state (regardless of how that cements the second-class status of its Palestinian Muslim and Christian citizens, who make up some 20% of the population).

Indeed, Hollande himself stated that “if we let [the two-state solution] wither away, it would be a risk for Israel’s security, to which we are resolutely attached.” He added that “we do not want to impose any solutions,” effectively signalling to Israel that it can still do as it pleases.

A resolution of the conflict “can only come after direct negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians, Hollande said. If those words sound familiar, it is because they have repeatedly come out of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s mouth. This stance perfectly suits any party to bilateral negotiations that enjoys overwhelming power and leverage over the other party, as Israel does over the Palestinians.

Yet despite the above, in the warped reality in which Israeli and Palestinian leaders live, Netanyahu condemned the conference (pursuant to Israel’s strategy of playing the eternal victim) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, perpetually grateful for scraps, welcomed it. Abbas said the conference would help stop “settlement activities and destroying the two-state solution through dictations and the use of force.” It will do no such thing.

In any case, the timing of the conference ensures its utter irrelevance, coming days before the inauguration of a US president who has proudly declared that “there’s nobody more pro-Israeli than I am” and whose ambassador-designate to Israel rejects a Palestinian state.

Even the Obama administration assured Israel that any proposal following the conference at the UN Security Council would be opposed by the United States. Meanwhile, Britain’s desire to be close to Trump no doubt motivated its blocking of an EU decision to support the conference communiqué.

As such, even if the conference was sympathetic to the Palestinians, Israel could safely ignore it. Indeed, Netanyahu, who aptly described the conference as “futile”, has rejected a French invitation to Paris to discuss its conclusions. “This conference is among the last twitches of the world of yesterday… Tomorrow will look different and that tomorrow is very close,” he said, clearly referring to the Trump presidency. He is not wrong.

One must wonder at the timing of the conference, coming just days before Trump’s inauguration and a few months before French elections in which Hollande is not running and whose likely winners are avowedly pro-Israel.

It is reminiscent of the US abstention in December of a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, in the dying days of an 8-year presidency that had hitherto shielded Israel at the United Nations and signed the biggest military aid package in American- Israeli dealings. Condemning the abstention and resolution, Trump tweeted that “as for the UN, things will be different” after his inauguration.

Perhaps the timing of the conference was the whole point, meant not to make diplomatic progress but as a vanity project for Hollande to bolster his legacy, so he can claim — albeit in the closing days of his presidency and no matter how unconvincingly — that he contributed to diplomacy and tried to further the Israeli- Palestinian “peace process”.