French Peace Initiative

On June 3, 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.

France embarked on a journey to garner peace in the Middle East when it hosted 29 Western and Arab countries, including the United States, in Paris for a ministerial meeting to try to move forward a Middle East peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. The French initiative, basically, is aimed at re-launching direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians in order to carve out a two-state solution to this decades-old conflict. Although, nothing solid came out of the conference, yet it played a valuable role in reminding the international community that time for a peaceful solution to the conflict is fast running out.

Since the beginning of the year, the French government has been building support for an international conference to restart the Israel-Palestine peace process. In preparation for the Paris conference, the French fielded a delegation to Israel and Palestine. They were focused primarily on meeting with Israeli members of the negotiating team, and addressing their concerns about the conference — even though Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had clearly expressed his disinterest in the French initiative. Rather than supporting French efforts, Netanyahu reiterated his supposed commitment to bilateral negotiations between the parties.

By contrast, the Palestinian leadership appeared just too happy to do anything in order to be at the negotiation table. But, if you have been following the Middle East “peace process” business over the last quarter of a century, you would, certainly, be aware that the “negotiations table” is nothing but a metaphor for buying time and obtaining political capital. The Israelis want time to finalise their colonial project of building up illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land; and the Palestinian leadership uses the “talks” to acquire political validations from the so-called “peace brokers”, namely the United States. The US, in turn, uses the futile “negotiations” to further assert itself as the caretaker of the Middle East, overthrowing regimes while simultaneously brokering peace.

Nevertheless, this brief window into the French thinking made clear that the basic structural problems that have waylaid past diplomatic efforts have not been addressed. Rather, Israel’s rejection of a lasting peace agreement and the Palestinian leadership’s inability to develop sufficient negotiating clout persist.

The history of the peace process is riddled with failure precisely because it assumes a symmetry between the two parties where it does not exist. This assumption was on full display in the days leading to the French initiative: the Israelis have no real reason to give up on a cost-free occupation, and the Palestinians have no effective way of compelling them to do so.

Other glaring shortfalls are evident. On the question as to  how the peace process would address the situation in Gaza, it is said that for the French delegates “Gaza is not a priority.” The division between Gaza and the West Bank, which in many ways persists because of international policies that discourage unity, appear to have been accepted and even integrated into the very structures of diplomacy. This further erodes any Palestinian capacity to push for a just settlement.

The move away from an American-centric peace process is in itself a positive development, given the failed US track record in acting as an honest broker in negotiations. The support of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for this initiative grows out of the international nature of the conference. Yet internationalization does not in itself address the fundamental imbalance between the two parties. Unless the process is reformed to bring pressure to bear on Israel to abide by international law, rather than simply to negotiate, the outcome is destined to failure, with disastrous consequences for the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation as well as for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

With the current constellation of power within Israel, the most right leaning coalition in Israel’s history, any hope for the ratification of a lasting peace grounded in international law is little more than fantasy.

But indeed that is the point. The peace process continues to serve its purpose: it is the charade or act of the process itself, rather than the outcome, which France appears to be seeking. The conference is little more than a platform from which to expand France’s diplomatic mission and export its soft power back into the Middle East. At a time when the US is retreating, France possibly sees itself as taking a lead in the region. Further, France appears to see peacemaking around Israel-Palestine as a stepping stone into broader diplomacy elsewhere.

The illusion of the “peace process” has exacerbated the conflict over the past two decades. The Oslo Accords, which emerged from bilateral negotiations between the parties, failed to end the conflict, but rather strengthened Israel’s control over the Palestinian territories. A plethora of initiatives have since been put forward against a backdrop of Israeli settlement expansion, colonization of Palestinian land and resources, and creeping Judaisation of Jerusalem.

There needs to be a different international approach toward Israel-Palestine, one which begins by imposing a cost to Israel’s occupation in order to make it untenable. Negotiations cannot proceed while Israel acts with impunity. With the failure of Kerry’s initiative, even the US appears to have accepted that a commitment to the peace process in its current form might need revisiting. The French should also take heed and reconsider. Reviving shopworn efforts in Paris will not help produce a different outcome.

Middle East Peace initiative – Joint communiqué  (Paris, June 3, 2016)

The participants met in Paris on June 3, 2016 to reaffirm their support for a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They 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. They are alarmed that actions on the ground, in particular continued acts of violence and ongoing settlement activity, are dangerously imperilling the prospects for a two-state solution.

The participants underscored that the status quo is not sustainable, and stressed the importance of both sides demonstrating, with policies and actions, a genuine commitment to the two-state solution in order 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), and also recalling relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and highlighting the importance of the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative.

The participants discussed possible ways in which the international community could help advance the prospects for peace, including by providing meaningful incentives to the parties to make peace. The participants also highlighted the potential for regional peace and security as envisioned by the Arab Peace Initiative.

The participants highlighted the key role of the Quartet and key regional stakeholders. They welcomed the interested countries’ offer to contribute to this effort. They also welcomed France’s offer to coordinate it, and the prospect of convening before the end of the year an international conference.

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