Hichem Karoui: France and the European Union: Progress on the Palestinian-Israeli issue?

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After the setback received by Mr. Alain Juppé, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, both in Israel and the United States, over his initiative to convene a Peace Conference in Paris on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the moroseness seemed gaining ground.

Concerning this issue, Mr. Juppé’s initiative was judged a little delusive and hasty. As we know, on June 2, during a visit to Ramallah, Mr. Juppé announced that France was ready to host an international peace conference before July in Paris. The only person who said “yes” was Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.

On June 6, in Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton replied: “Our position is wait and see.” She insisted on the necessity of well-preparedness on the issue, which is also the position of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Paris, some observers said Mr. Juppé was “too fast” and even “counter-productive” with the proposal, although he was well intentioned.

According to Le Point, Mr. Juppé has declared to Salam Fayyad that “the status quo between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is no longer tenable. We are convinced that if nothing happens by the month of September, the situation will be very difficult for everyone at the meeting of the UN General Assembly.” The French foreign minister wished for a resumption of talks on the basis of proposals by US President Barack Obama, a dialogue that would concentrate on border issues and security based on the 1967’s pre-war borders. Status issues of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees would be delayed for a year.

Thus, Mr. Juppé has based his conference proposal on the parameters defined by President Obama, without paying more attention to the rejection of the same speech by the Israeli government.

Nevertheless, the official position of French diplomacy, though criticized, is well grounded and supported by the political elite. On June 15, the French Socialist Party issued a statement saying:

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict imbues the Middle East in blood for too long. It destabilizes the region and feeds extremism far beyond any limits. The Socialist Party believes that France and Europe must without waiting anymore, primarily work toward a just, comprehensive and lasting peace solution, in this region of the world. The annual session of the UN General Assembly in next September should be a milestone.”

The statement adds: The Socialist Party calls “France to recognize the Palestinian state and make every possible effort so that the European Union supports this recognition at the upcoming UN General Assembly. It is a decisive step to make real the peaceful coexistence of two states, Israeli and Palestinian and the reconciliation of their peoples. The international community should convene as soon as possible a peace conference on the Middle East to set the parameters of the peace agreement between Israel and Palestine and the commitments of the international community on security, economic assistance and cooperation with the region.”

This is surely an important evolution in the positions of the Socialists regarding this conflict. Apparently, in issuing their statement, they choose to be pro-active, instead of the American “wait and see” stance. And most importantly, in the aftermath of the Quai d’Orsay’s recent setback, no mean political calculations as to how this position would be interpreted, entered in consideration. Although the Socialists are in the opposition, they would not relinquish the international scene on such an important upcoming event (the UN debate on the eventual recognition of the Palestinian statehood) and leave it to the Right. That is the meaning of their recent stance.

Regarding the Palestinian problem, we may now speak of the existence of a consensus among the French elite. The two major political blocs of the country (UMP and PS) seem agreeing on the necessity to support a peace solution based on the 1967 pre-war borders. We can also predict a supportive stance for the Palestinian demand of statehood in next September.

Although the special envoy of the Quartet (UN, EU, USA, Russia) Tony Blair has recently given support to the French initiative and so did the UN Secretary General who assured Mr. Juppé that “his initiative was in the right direction,” it is still difficult to imagine such a meeting in Paris much before the end of July.

Mr. Obama’s position, which is both pragmatic and foresees a fair solution to the conflict, has not been particularly welcome in Israel. Mr. Netanyahu rejected the principles of the US proposal last month in front of the United States Congress, which gave him multiple standing ovations for his toughness. The Obama Administration, whose last attempt to forge a successful peace accord broke down after a measly three weeks last September, has essentially run out of options. And with President Obama’s re-election bid to kick off next year, it is almost a given that the White House will avoid pressuring the Israelis to make any more concessions.

In order to avert a potentially explosive dispute at the UN in September, EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton has launched a bold initiative. The EU official in a letter over the weekend said the Quartet should hold a high-level meeting before the summer which spells out that Israel must pull back to its 1967 borders in return for security guarantees from the Palestinian side.

Ms. Ashton's letter -- addressed to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Secretary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and published by the Israeli daily Haaretz -- says: “I believe that what is needed now is a clear signal to the parties, and a reference framework that should enable them to return to the negotiating table.”

It adds that the Arab Spring “makes it even more urgent to find a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“This is no time for unilateral moves on either side, since this could lead to escalation ... It is critical we make a gesture before the summer, because we need to contribute to a calming of a volatile situation that promises to be even more so as the year progresses,” she said.

Obviously, this letter strengthens the French position and may foretell a European supportive consensus to the right of statehood so far denied to the Palestinians.

(Hichem Karoui is an expert in US-Middle East relations. His political column has been published by varied Arabic and English speaking media. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Sorbonne University. He can be reached by email at: [email protected]) His homepage: http://www.hichemkaroui.com)