June 9, 2016
Israeli-Palestinian talks sponsored by the US collapsed in April 2014. On July 8, Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza in response to rocket attacks by Hamas. 2,143 Palestinians and 71 Israelis lost their lives with 11,000 wounded. There was great devastation. Almost 100,000 people were left homeless. Israeli authorities and UN officials could not agree on the number of civilian casualties in Gaza. Following the declaration of a ceasefire on August 26, Hamas declared victory and PM Netanyahu stated that Israel had achieved her objectives. The understanding was that talks on substantive issues would start in a month in Cairo. They did and got nowhere. A new wave of Palestinian violence started, this time in the form of stabbings. Yesterday, four Israelis were killed and three injured in a central Tel Aviv shooting terror attack. In response Israel sent more troops to the West Bank and froze 83,000 permits for Palestinians to enter Israel. These had been issued as a goodwill gesture to allow greater freedom of movement for Palestinians during Ramadan.
On the international scene, the rift between PM Netanyahu and the Obama administration deepened as a result of the former’s fierce opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and particularly his visit to Washington the address the Congress which constituted a breach of protocol. In the meantime, British, Spanish, French, Irish and Greek parliaments adopted resolutions calling for the recognition of the Palestinian State. Sweden became the first EU country to officially recognize Palestine on October 30, 2014. Western criticism of PM Netanyahu continued to grow.
It was against this background that France hosted on June 3, 2016 in Paris an international conference attended by 28 delegations including the UN. UK, Germany and Russia did not attend at ministerial level. Israelis and Palestinians were not invited. PM Netanyahu strongly opposed the initiative whereas the Palestinians were supportive. The title of the conference was: “Middle East Peace Initiative”.
There is some history to this meeting. Following Israel’s Gaza operation in 2014, France supported a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution designed to create a framework for a final resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict but the effort stalled. Later, France suggested creating an international support group for peace talks. Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Minister at the time, said that France would unilaterally recognize Palestine as an independent state if the effort failed.
In an interview with Le Monde on June 2, 2016 French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault responded to the question why the meeting was being held now. He said that France wants to change the status quo. He said that the situation on the ground is worsening, particularly in the Palestinian Territories; settlement activity is continuing, whether organized or scattered; available space for a Palestinian State is diminishing; in the Palestinian Territories or in the camps in Jordan and Lebanon, ISIL propaganda is feeding off people’s despair.
Foreign Minister Ayrault also reiterated French support for the two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security, with Jerusalem as their shared capital. “A new environment must be created on an international scale to tell the two parties: we are not going to negotiate on your behalf, as that is your responsibility as Israelis and Palestinians, but we do want to help you” he said. Understandably, his language as the host of the Paris meeting, was milder than his predecessor.
Addressing the Conference, President Hollande said that in the Middle East void is surely being filled by the terrorists. This, he said, was the lesson in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Actually, this has also been the case in Palestine. Mr. Hollande did not go as far as expressing regret like President Obama about military interventions with no preparation for the “day after”, such as the Libyan one. Nonetheless, he used the word “lesson”. Such admission needs to be made by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy who led the Libya intervention. The President called for the peace of the brave. He mentioned the two-state solution but avoided mentioning Jerusalem. He extended special thanks to Secretary Kerry for attending the Conference since his presence was “indispensable”.
The half page joint-communiqué published at the end of the half-day meeting reaffirmed that a negotiated two-state solution is the only way to achieve an enduring peace, with two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. Although it is obvious that this can only be achieved through negotiations, the insertion of the word “negotiated” in the text is worthy of attention. The communiqué did not mention of Jerusalem as the “shared capital”. There was, however, a reference to “rebuild trust and create the conditions for fully ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and resolving all permanent status issues through direct negotiations based on resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973)”. The “Arab Peace Initiative” proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 was also highlighted. As for future action, the participants underlined the key role of the Quartet and key regional stakeholders. They welcomed the prospect of convening an international conference before the end of the year and France’s offer to coordinate it.
Following the conference, Secretary Kerry made some cautious comments and was non-committal. He said everybody had agreed that one can’t impose a solution from outside and the parties need to have direct negotiations. He also said that he will continue to work very intensely on the problem until his last day in office. One gets the impression that he weighed in on behalf of Israel during the conference.
French motives for the Middle East Peace Initiative have been the subject of speculation. Some Israeli analysts have said that this was an attempt to rehabilitate France’s international reputation and distract attention from domestic problems. Others thought that the French are taking advantage of the vacuum left by the US. There may be some truth in all of that. But, more importantly, there is a lot of truth in what President Hollande and Minister Ayrault said.
As regards the void, there is more than one. In August 2013, the British Parliament rejected a government proposal for military action against the Assad regime to deter the use of chemical weapons and thus redefined the limits of UK involvement in the Middle East. They are now busy with the 23 June EU referendum. Chancellor Merkel appears almost fully occupied with the refugee issue. In brief, neither major EU countries nor the EU have for long been in a position to take a Middle East initiative. So, the timing of the meeting was well-chosen. The conference did not make headlines because the intention was to reaffirm the commitment to the “negotiated two-state solution” and pave the way for some follow-up. All in all, what is said by the participants and in the communique gives the impression that the present project is a toned down version of what was originally announced, in broad terms, by Laurent Fabius.
What are the prospects for the future?
The Paris communique underlined the key role of the Quartet and highlighted the Arab Peace Initiative.
The Quartet brings together the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia. The group was established in Madrid in 2002. James Wolfensohn, a former President of the World Bank was Quartet’s first Special Envoy. He was replaced by Tony Blair in 2007. Mr. Blair resigned in May 2015. The present Special Envoy since November 2015 is the Dutch national Kito de Boer. The truth is that so far the Quartet has accomplished very little, if anything, on core issues. And the appointment of Tony Blair to the post of Special Envoy may not have been the wisest choice because of the controversial role he played in the invasion of Iraq.
The Arab Peace Plan which foresees the normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories has been on the table since 2002. Though it provides a good basis for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement it has remained on the shelf ever since. It is brought up every now and then when there is a crisis situation but then goes back on the shelf again. PM Netanyahu now says he is prepared to proceed from a revised version.
The key to ending the Middle East conflict remains the commitment of the Israeli government. Mr. Netanyahu served as his country’s PM between 1996-1999. And, he has been PM since 2009. During all those years he has not given any indication of genuinely embracing the two-state solution. Moreover, at present, the Arab Spring has turned into Arab world’s chaos. Iraq and Syria, two important countries of the Arab heartland are struggling to survive. Gulf countries have moved closer to Israel because of Iran. Mr. Netanyahu now says that that Israel will never withdraw from the Golan heights. The US presidential election will soon mark the end of the Obama era. What will follow is anyone’s guess. The EU is showing signs of stress. Russia’s relations with the West are problematic. In a nutshell, an already unwilling PM Netanyahu has no reason whatsoever to change course. Despite his opposition to the Paris conference he should be quite pleased with the outcome.
Regardless of where the French initiative may lead to, the Paris conference was a useful reminder that despite being overshadowed by other dramatic developments, the question of Palestine has been with us longer than any other Middle East problem; that it has made a major contribution to the spread of terrorism; and, its resolution can make a huge impact on the region’s political landscape.