French Middle East peace initiative: Between surrealism and skepticism

Considering the list of participants, it is mindboggling that there is not enough influence to put the peace show back on the road

Yossi Mekelberg

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Last week on one of the stormiest days in Paris in decades, eminent diplomats met in the city to discuss the possibility of convening an international peace conference between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To bring peace between these two protagonists the international community will most definitely need a display of power, similar to the one by the elements that flooded much of Paris while the meeting took place.

There was also an element of surrealism in having so many matchmakers in attendance, but no representation of the future happy couple – at this stage they were not even invited. Surrealism aside, the absence of Israeli and the Palestinian representatives typifies not only the inability to resolve the conflict but also a failure to find a workable process leading toward a final status agreement.

Considering the list of participants, including the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary of State Kerry, representatives from the EU, the Arab League and Russia, among others, it is mindboggling that there is not enough influence among them to put the peace show back on the road.

Israel’s instinctive response is to reject the very idea of an international peace conference. An Israeli senior official compared this initiative to the much maligned Sykes-Picot agreement, while at the same time the Palestinian leadership cautiously welcomed the idea, but expressed skepticism regarding the international community’s determination in pursuing it all the way to a just solution. Israel, as always, is concerned with being outnumbered and outmanoeuvred in such international gatherings.

While at times this is the case, the rejection of the current French initiative is more a tactical avoidance of genuine peace negotiations. Whatever, misgivings Netanyahu may have regarding an international conference, it does not negate the reality that by expanding Jewish settlements, combined with oppressive occupation in the West Bank, and the blockade on Gaza, Israel renders peace based on two state solution improbable and on the verge of impossible.

The absence of Israeli and the Palestinian representatives typifies not only the inability to resolve the conflict but also a failure to find a workable process leading toward a final status agreement

Yossi Mekelberg

There is grave disingenuity in Israel’s insistence on direct talks, as the only way of negotiating a peace agreement, or its recent persistent declarations of devotion to a two-state solution based on the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative (API), while at the same time doing everything in its capacity to derail both.

The hollow rhetoric of supporting the API and its corollary Palestinian self-determination by Netanyahu and his new Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, cannot be reconciled with the Israeli entrenchment of the occupation.

The Saudi initiative

Since its inception in 2002, outlined by the then Crown Prince Abdullah, the API provided the best opportunity not only for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but also for Israeli acceptance and reconciliation with large parts of the Middle East. Recklessly, it was rejected by the Sharon government at the time and has never been embraced by any subsequent Israeli government, as a prudent approach should have dictated.

The current outburst of expressions of support of the API, by Israeli senior officials, is a blatant attempt to deflect from rejecting the new French peace initiative, and also has more to do with improving relations with Saudi Arabia than accepting the plan itself.

France has its own reasons for attempting to carry out such a high profile initiative to broker peace where many others, who were more powerful, failed before. President Hollande and Lauren Fabious, who was the French prime minister when this plan was first announced, harbor deep concerns about the implications it will have on their country and Europe, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved in the foreseeable future.

Considering its large Muslim population, which has natural affinity and sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians, the renewed French proactivity in bringing peace is bound to be popular among them. There is an extra impetus to do so, as the French society is trying to curtail the influence of radical Muslims.

Without belittling France’s genuine concerns about the absence of peace in the Middle East, it has also identified a vacancy in the role of an honest peace broker, and would like to assert itself as a leading international diplomatic powerhouse.

Washington has ruled itself out from taking on this role, at least until after the presidential elections, and is anyway seen as identifying too much with Israeli interests; the United Kingdom is too self-absorbed with the Brexit referendum; Germany can never play this role for historical reasons; and Russia has little interest in leading such a process.

Under these circumstances, the French Peace initiative, even if it only keeps the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace on the international agenda, should be greeted with at least cautious enthusiasm.

Yet, the main issue, in my mind, is not whether negotiations would take place under an international conference umbrella or would be conducted directly. It is whether both sides are capable of tackling the issues at the heart of the conflict head-on and whether the international community is ready to be intensely proactive in ensuring they reach the finishing line.

Negotiations without strict deadlines and a clear endgame very quickly become meaningless in whatever format. If the dignitaries that met last week are sincere that the current status quo is unsustainable and the only way forward is the two state solution, they need to back it up with concrete policies.

Ordinary Palestinians, as much as Israelis, hardly pay attention to any new peace initiative. Their level of skepticism and their distrust of one another, the international community and their own leadership, has reached new heights.

An international conference might be a good start, but it should move very quickly to address the core issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security for all, and settlements, and do so with intensity, clarity and determination. This should include necessary incentives and penalties for anyone deemed to be derailing a just and fair peace agreement.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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