Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024

French Peace Initiative a Dud

A Paris gathering of 29 foreign ministers and senior diplomats on June 3 called for an international conference on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be held by year’s end, amid warnings that time was running out to implement the so-called two-state solution.

A joint statement was issued at the end of the one day meeting. It expressed alarm at the deteriorating situation on the ground, including the continued growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the recent rash of Palestinian stabbings and other lone wolf attacks intended to kill Israelis. It called the status quo unsustainable and affirmed support “for a just, lasting and enduring peace, with two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”

The meeting was organized by France over Israel’s objections. It brought together diplomats from the European Union, the Arab League, the United Nations and the Middle East Quartet, including the United States and Russia. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians were invited to attend the meeting.

The diplomats agreed to establish teams to work on economic and security incentives they could offer if Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry was evasive when reporters asked if he supports holding another conference this year, with Israelis and Palestinians participating. “We’re just starting,” he said. “Let’s get into the conversations.”

Israeli officials expressed relief that Kerry made no public statements during or after the meeting demanding specific Israeli concessions to Palestinian demands, or promising US support for the French diplomatic effort.

Prime Minister Netanyahu had called Kerry the night before and asked him to work to soften any harsh language in the statement. The resulting joint statement was relatively mild with respect to Israel, compared to other recent diplomatic statements on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It also did not set a firm date for the follow-up conference which the French have proposed.


Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor, told a reporter for a Jewish newspaper that Kerry attended the Paris conference for the specific purpose of moderating its message. “Kerry participated because we are very much of the view that this very delicate issue has to be handled effectively and we can’t see efforts that might, in fact, complicate the situation on the ground [by being] allowed to generate distraction, or worse, renewed or intensified frictions,” Rice said.

In a speech before a secular Jewish audience in Washington, Rice promised that the deal that is being negotiated for US military aid to Israel over the next decade will “constitute a significant increase in support.” However, she renewed administration criticism of Israeli settlement activity because it “corrodes the prospects for two states [and] it moves Israel toward a one-state reality.” On the other hand, Rice said that the US will continue to block attempts to grant recognition to a Palestinian state through actions at the UN.

Rice promised that the US will continue to maintain Israel’s military edged over its enemies. She also condemned the one-sided criticism which Israel has received at the UN and in other forums. “We will stand up not just for Israel’s security but for its legitimacy. No state is immune from criticism…but when one state is targeted as relentlessly, obsessively, [and] bitterly as Israel is, time and time again, it is wrong and ugly. It is bullying in the guise of diplomacy and it has to stop.”


The day after the Paris meeting, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that urgent actions were necessary “to preserve the two-state solution, revive it before it is too late.”

Ayrault claimed that the fact that it took place at all was a victory for French diplomacy. It had to overcome broad skepticism about the prospects for renewing successful peace talks. Veteran French diplomat Pierre Vimont was summoned from retirement to take charge of arrangements for the meeting, and succeeded in convincing 20 foreign ministers to attend.

Ayrault called Netanyahu to update him on the progress that had been made. Netanyahu told him once again that the best way for France to advance prospects for a peace agreement was to drop their current initiative and pressure PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas into resuming direct talks to reach a final agreement. The French diplomat rejected Netanyahu’s calls for direct negotiations with the Palestinians, saying that such talks have not been fruitful in the past.

Expressing French frustration with the diplomatic gridlock, Ayrault said, “Currently everything is blocked. We extended our hands to the Israelis and Palestinians and we hope that they will respond positively and take action to renew the peace process.”


The last direct talks between Abbas and an Israeli prime minister were held in 2008 when then premiere Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians extensive territorial concessions. Olmert’s offer included 1-to-1 land swaps, giving land within Israel’s pre-1967 borders to the Palestinians in exchange for Israel gaining permanent sovereignty over the largest blocks of Jewish West Bank settlements.

Abbas cut off the talks when it became clear that Olmert would be forced to step down from office due to a financial scandal. Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pleaded with Abbas to sign a partial agreement based on Olmert’s offer to lock in the concessions for whenever the peace talks would resume in the future, but Abbas refused. When Netanyahu took office, he made it clear that he did not consider Olmert’s concessions to be binding, since Israel never signed anything. As a result, when peace talks resumed under Kerry in 2013, they effectively started from scratch. They also were conducted at a lower level. Despite a personal effort by President Obama to initiate direct talks between the two, Abbas rejected Netanyahu’s repeated public invitations for direct negotiations with no pre-conditions.


Netanyahu also told the French foreign minister that he opposed the decision at the Paris meeting to set up international working groups to create a package of economic incentives, security guarantees and “confidence building” measures to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Netanyahu said that no foreign country could fully understand Israel’s security needs. The same issue had come up during the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that were brokered by Kerry. Then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon condemned the security plan for the West Bank which US defense experts had drawn up for Kerry as not worth the paper it was printed on. Netanyahu still feels that way. He informed Ayrault that rather than leaving it in the hands of a committee of foreign countries, “Israel will deal with its own essential security needs.”

He told the French foreign minister that the French peace initiative was interfering with Israel’s efforts to negotiate a viable regional peace plan with its Arab neighbors. It hopes to reach an agreement with the Arabs based upon a modified version of a 2002 Saudi proposal.


Dore Gold, director general of the Foreign Ministry, has been meeting with officials of Arab countries which had fought Israel in the past. Israel and its former enemies now find their security endangered by the same regional threats, including Iran, ISIS and the instability which has been created by civil war in Syria. Even though these Arab states had backed Palestinian claims in the past, they now find a greater need to cooperate with Israel against the new threats they face in the region.

“The conventional wisdom for the last few decades has been that a solution to the Palestinian issues will result in improved ties between Israel and the Arab world,” Gold told an Israeli reporter. “But now there is a serious basis for thinking that the sequence is exactly the opposite. By improving ties with the Arab states, Israel sets the stage for a future breakthrough with the Palestinians.”

Israel is hopeful that its improved ties with its former enemies will result in Arab pressure on the Palestinians to stop blocking progress towards a reasonable peace agreement.

One former enemy now working in close cooperation with Israel is Egypt, especially since its military overthrew the government led by Mohamed Morsi, a prominent member of the Muslim brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas. Morsi’s replacement, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, sees Hamas as Egypt’s enemy and has run an effective campaign to shut down Hamas’ smuggling tunnels, while cooperating with Israel’s military embargo on Hamas at the border crossings between Gaza and Egypt. Last month, Sissi said that there is now a “real opportunity” for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and pledged all Egyptian assistance to help realize it.


The Paris meeting was postponed twice due to the difficulty the French encountered in rounding up participants. French diplomats have been trying for years to restart the peace process after Kerry’s peace talks collapsed, in April, 2014. The nine-month effort by Kerry started well because he came up with good incentives to both sides, but it collapsed when it became clear that Abbas was unwilling to negotiate in good faith to resolve the core issues.

Initial French efforts to get the UN Security Council to pass a resolution requiring the peace negotiations to resume, with a hard deadline and specific Israeli territorial concessions failed to gain the necessary support. The French then embarked on the effort to organize an international peace conference on their own.

French President Francois Hollande opened the Paris conference with a call for Israel and Palestinians to take “the brave step toward peace.” He said the spread of terrorism around the world makes the push for peace more urgent.

“Violence is growing and hope is fading. That’s why we want to try and revive the peace process. The only ones to benefit from the continuation of the status quo are the extremists who oppose peace,” Hollande added.


Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan, called the French approach “borderline delusional” to suggest that diplomats from outside the region could meet in Paris and make a meaningful contribution to Middle East peace without Israel being represented.

The Israeli foreign ministry called the Paris conference a missed opportunity. It compared the Paris meeting to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between England and France which cynically carved up the Middle East between the two powers in anticipation of their victory in World War I. “History will record that the conference in Paris only hardened the Palestinian position and distanced the chances for peace,” the foreign ministry statement concluded.

From the Israeli point of view, the outcome of the conference, while far from ideal, could have been much worse. It had relatively little impact on the diplomatic world because the foreign ministers of Germany, Britain and Russia were absent, which considerably reduced its prestige. The countries were represented instead by lower level diplomats.

The US did not make any overt effort to block the French initiative, but Kerry was not eager to attend. The Obama White House appeared to be less than thrilled to see the French pick up the peacemaking efforts which have usually been led by US presidents going back to Jimmy Carter, who hosted the successful peace talks between Israel and Egypt at Camp David almost 40 years ago.


Veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is now the secretary general of the PLO, called the Paris meeting a “flicker of hope Palestine has been waiting for,” and called on its participants to force Israel to halt “its colonization and apartheid policies in Occupied Palestine.”

The Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, who did attend the Paris meeting, stressed that the Saudi 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API) is “still on the table,” and said it “has all the elements needed for a final resolution” of the conflict. Unfortunately, he rejected Israel’s demands for modification of the terms of the proposal, which originally demanded a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Yerushalayim to the pre-1967 lines. “The Arab Peace Initiative does not need changing or adjusting, it is on the table as is,” he insisted, and added his hope that “Israel will wise-up” to the opportunity it presents.

Netanyahu was quick to respond, praising the Saudi proposal while emphasizing Israel’s insistence on adjustments. In a Knesset speech, he said, “I remain committed to making peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbors. The Arab Peace Initiative contains positive elements that could help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians. We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in our region since 2002, but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples.”


The Palestinian refusal to bargain in good faith with Israel has been the key reason for the failure of every round of talks since the 2000 Camp David summit. Each failure generated more pessimism and anger, making it more difficult to organize the next effort to bridge the gaps between the two sides.

When the Oslo peace process was still new and seemed to be working, even many Israelis who had initially been skeptical were willing to give it a chance to succeed. But after more than twenty years of repeated failure and deadly terrorism, polls show that most Israeli have given up hope for reaching an agreement with today’s Palestinian leaders. Even some on the Israeli left admit that such an agreement is currently out of reach.

The lesson to be learned from Kerry’s failure two years ago is that providing incentives to bring both sides to the bargaining table is not enough to guarantee success. There must be equally effective incentives and a real desire on both sides to reach a final agreement once the talks begin.


The collapse of the Kerry’s talks was triggered by a public admission by PA negotiator Erekat that the only reason the Palestinians agreed to keep talking was to get the promised release of their senior terrorists from Israeli jails. Once it became clear that the Palestinians didn’t really want a peace agreement, Israel did not release the final batch of prisoners.

Kerry tried to save the negotiations by promising Israel that Jonathan Pollard would be freed if they went ahead with the terrorist release. Abbas then deliberately sabotaged Kerry’s effort by publicly applying to various international bodies for immediate recognition of the Palestinian state.

Despite Abbas’ cynical moves, Kerry later publicly blamed Israel’s pursuit of its settlement policy for the failure of the talks, even though a tacit agreement by the US and the PA to allow limited settlement construction to continue was the quid pro quo which Kerry gave Israel to get the negotiations started in the first place.


Meanwhile the security situation in the region has drastically deteriorated since those talks ended in April, 2014. The civil war in Syria, the agreement which ended the oil sanctions and confirmed Iran’s status as a threshold nuclear state, and the rise of ISIS, are now the main security threats to every country in the Middle East, and especially to Israel. The Palestinian problem is no longer widely seen as the key factor de-stabilizing the region, which, in fact it never was. From the beginning in 1948, the misery of the Palestinians was a problem which was created and deliberately perpetuated by Arab leaders, as part of their ongoing efforts to delegitimize and destroy Israel.

Before last year’s Knesset election, Netanyahu announced that the increased regional risks to Israel’s security made it impractical to continue pursuit of a two-state solution which would require an Israeli withdrawal from strategic areas of the West Bank which are vital to its defense.

The statement infuriated the Obama White House because it confirmed what everyone knew, that US influence in the region had declined to the point that it could no longer force the parties to return to the negotiating table with any hope for success.

After the election, Obama pressured Netanyahu to re-affirm publicly that he and his government still supported a two-state solution with the Palestinians in principle, even though security conditions in the region did not allow it to go forward at that time.


The fact that the latest effort to bring the parties back together is being led by the French is another signal to the world that the US has lost this aspect of its leadership role in the region.

Friends of Israel had feared that Obama would try to use his last months in office to force Israel to agree to a bad deal with the Palestinians. That threat has not totally disappeared, but Obama does seem to have other, more pressing concerns at the moment. Chiefly, he wants to help Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in November so that she can preserve his main accomplishments as president, including Obamacare and the nuclear deal with Iran.

The French effort has no more realistic chance for success than a US effort would have. According to former French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, the French peace initiative was launched to give Hollande a major foreign policy achievement before his presidential term expires next year.


Abbas and his PA government still show no desire to return to direct peace negotiations with Israel. They eagerly declared their support for the initial version of the French initiative because it threatened to grant international recognition to the Palestinian state if a peace agreement had not been finalized within two years. The Palestinians could then simply run out the clock on the talks, and collect their reward once they had reached the deadline.

The French eventually recognized this flaw after Netanyahu explained about it. Even without the bonus of unearned recognition, the Palestinians welcomed the international attention created by the French proposal after they had been largely ignored by the international community, which is now more concerned about ISIS and the deteriorating situation in Syria.

Israeli leaders remain highly skeptical of the French initiative. They see it as more unwelcome outside interference. Even opposition and Labor Party leader Yitzchok Herzog publicly admits that Abbas is not a viable partner for peace. Herzog understands that successful peace negotiations will have to await the emergence of a new Palestinian leader. He will need to have sufficient desire and support from his people to make the security and territorial concessions to Israel that will be required in any mutually acceptable final agreement.


Last January, Herzog recommended an interim plan to separate the Arab-populated neighborhoods of Yerushalayim from the rest of the city, and a removal of Jewish residents from the more isolated settlements in the West Bank. His goal is to preserve those areas for the future creation of Palestinian state. Herzog’s proposal was harshly condemned by leftist activists who accused him of giving up the effort to reach a 2-state solution.

But the logic behind Herzog’s proposal is very similar to the demographic argument supporting the case for a 2-state solution. Peace process advocates talk about the need to establish an independent Palestinian state to prevent the Jews of Israel from eventually becoming a minority. That argument always had serious flaws, and is even more dubious now that Israel has left Gaza and is no longer responsible for the 2 million Arabs who live there.

A major problem with Herzog’s proposal is that it comes too late. As a practical matter, the large number of Jews living in the West Bank makes it virtually impossible to physically separate them from the Arabs living there.


In 2005, Ariel Sharon’s plan to forcibly remove less than 10,000 Jewish residents from Gaza was difficult enough. According to newly released figures from Israel’s Interior Ministry, the Jewish population of the West Bank, has increased by 24% since 2010 and has reached 406,000.

About 75-80% of them live in communities within the West Bank security fence, just across the 1967 Green Line border, as well as in large settlement blocks such as Gush Etzion and the cities of Ariel and Maale Adumim. They can stay in their homes because these are areas which Israel is expected to retain in any final peace agreement. Herzog’s plan would require that the 80,0000 to 100,000 Jews living in other parts of the West Bank be removed from their homes and communities because they are on land that Herzog expects to give to the Palestinian state.

Who would pay these people compensation for the land and homes in which many of them have lived their entire lives. Who would supply them with interim living quarters until permanent new housing could be built for them?

The 2005 disengagement was a traumatic experience for the Jews of Gaza who were forcibly displaced from their homes. Ten years later, many of them have still not fully recovered. Now imagine the tremendous monetary and human cost of displacing and resettling 8 to 10 times as many West Bank residents in order to carry out Herzog’s plan.

It would be even more impractical to try to redivide Yerushalayim along the Green Line border. It would mean uprooting 360,000 Jewish residents from their current homes in neighborhoods such as Neve Yaakov, Ramat Eshkol, Ramot, Pisgat Zev, Gilo and others.


Concern about international efforts to force Israel to accept a bad peace deal with the Palestinians appears to be a driving factor in Netanyahu’s recent efforts to enlarge and stabilize his government coalition.

It was an open secret that Netanyahu had been holding coalition talks for some time with Labor Party head Yitzchok Herzog, to whom he offered the post of foreign minister. Netanyuahu’s right-wing government coalition had been surprisingly stable over the past year, despite its razor-thin 1 vote majority in the Knesset. But Netanyahu and others feared efforts by Obama to destabilize the Israeli government during his final days as president as political revenge for Netanyahu’s failed effort to block Congressional approval of the nuclear deal with Iran. If that happened, Herzog would play the same role as a left wing intermediary with the White House that former Labor Party head Ehud Barak did while he was Netanyahu’s defense minister.

Netanyahu was willing to meet many of Herzog’s demands for restarting the peace process, but he refused to give him those commitments in writing for fear that if they were made public, it could ignite a revolt within the right wing of his Likud party. It would also give Netanyahu’s main rival within the coalition, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Bayit Yehudi party, another excuse to accuse the prime minister of breaking his promises to the right wing.


Meanwhile Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, publicly broke with the Netanyahu on two sensitive army-related issues. This made Ya’alon politically expendable and gave Netanyahu another political card to play in his effort to expand and stabilize his coalition.

Ya’alon was a former army general and commander in chief. He and Netanyahu saw eye to eye on the problems of trying to make peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu stood behind Ya’alon when he got into trouble two years ago over his outspoken criticism of Kerry’s character and motivations for pushing Israel into peace talks that could not succeed.

Ya’alon was a competent defense minister, but some on the right were unhappy that he and Netanyahu decided to leave Hamas defeated but still in control of Gaza at the end of the 2014 war. Ya’alon and Netanyahu were also widely criticized for taking so long to suppress the knife intifada which started over Sukkos.

When Ya’alon’s recent public statements clashed with the prime minister, Netanyahu did not hesitate to remove him from office. That enabled Netanyahu to dangle the prestigious defense ministry portfolio in front of Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party which caters to secular Russian voters. At first it appeared that the offer to Lieberman was a political ploy designed to pressure Herzog into softening his demands for entering the coalition. But when Lieberman signaled that he was seriously interested in the offer, and was willing to abide by the existing coalition agreements with the chareidi parties, Netanyahu moved quickly to close the deal.


Netanyahu and Lieberman have a long and occasionally stormy political history. Lieberman’s tenure as foreign minister in Netanyahu’s previous government ended badly. Lieberman initially took his revenge on Netanyahu by refusing to bring his party into the coalition after last year’s election. But after spending more than a year in the opposition, Lieberman was quick to accept Netanyahu’s offer of the defense portfolio before the prime minister could pull it back.

Lieberman has long been a target of criticism in the Israeli media. It accused him of being a political thug, a racist, and criminally corrupt. After living for years under the cloud of a police investigation, Lieberman was recently cleared of all criminal charges.

After accepting the post of defense minister, he moved quickly to distance himself from his previous accusations that Israeli Arabs are a potential Fifth Column of traitors living in the country, as well as his calls for the total destruction of Israel’s enemies, starting with Hamas. Lieberman now insists that he will be responsive to demands that he cooperate in peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians, and not abuse his new authority as the civilian head of the Israeli army and administrator of the West Bank.

Lieberman’s media and left wing critics are not buying it. They are now using many of the same tactics to discredit him as defense minister as the American media and critics of Donald Trump’s legitimacy are using to discredit him as a presidential candidate. But defenders of his appointment as defense minister note that Lieberman proved to be a competent and responsible foreign minister in Netanyahu’s previous government.

In response to foreign critics of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, Lieberman and Netanyahu have both declared their support for ultimately negotiating a peace agreement with a new PA leadership of a Palestinian state that is willing to recognize and to live in peace alongside Israel.


One goal of that rhetoric is to keep the coalition negotiations with Herzog alive, despite the angry reaction inside Labor when Herzog’s efforts to close a deal with Netanyahu collapsed and the prime minister turned to Lieberman.

As long as the French initiative keeps going, and the possibility exists that a President Hillary Clinton will keep pressing Obama’s demands for Israeli concessions, Netanyahu realizes that he might need someone like Herzog as his dovish foreign minister to defend Israel’s position at an international peace conference or in Washington. Herzog could be as useful to Netanyahu in that role as Shimon Peres was to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as his foreign minister. Meanwhile left wing media pundits and Herzog’s liberal opponents within Labor are publicly warning him not to be taken in by the new rhetoric spouted by Netanyahu and Lieberman. They urged him to keep his promise to end negotiations with Netanyahu to bring Labor into the coalition.


Meanwhile, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett has launched new accusations that Netanyahu and Lieberman have betrayed the right wing and the settlers by expressing support for a Palestinian state and eventually renewing negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We will take down the government over anything that would lead to a division of the land of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state,” Bennett declared in a broadcast news interview. “I will do anything to stop it.

“We are in a government whose basic principles include no Palestinian state. As long as we are here, there will not be a Palestinian state along Highway 6, five minutes from Kfar Saba, and there will be no division of Yerushalayim.”

But Bennett also was quick to add, “I have no problem with a regional peace conference if it considers the broader issues.”

Bennett denied that he is trying boycott the Zionist Union by keeping it out of the coalition. “We need to expand the coalition. We had a weak government, and I am ready to bring in any party, as long as the coalition’s governing principles do not change.”

Likud issued a statement rejecting Bennett’s accusations. “This is just another typical Bennett public relations exercise. He knows very well that Prime Minister Netanyahu is firmly against returning to the ‘67 borders and dividing Yerushalayim. Yet he is taking Netanyahu’s red lines and presenting them as if the Prime Minister supports violating them. This is a false depiction,” the Likud statement said.


Bennett still bears a political grudge from last year’s Knesset election. A desperate last minute appeal by Netanyahu for support from all right wing voters cost Bennett’s party four Knesset seats, reducing the size and political power of its Knesset factions by one-third.

Like Lieberman, Bennett once worked as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, but the two no longer fully trust each other. Their current alliance is based purely on mutual political convenience.

Bennett no doubt sees Lieberman as his new right wing political rival within the coalition. Bennett threatened to vote against Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister unless Netanyahu agreed to give the Bayit Yehudi leader high level military briefings as a member of security cabinet.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues to hold in reserve several choice cabinet posts. He is using them to entice Herzog and other Labor Party leaders thirsting for power to put aside their suspicions and accept his offer to join the government..


Right now, however, all eyes in Israel’s political world are tuning to the fascinating campaign shaping up in the US between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Its outcome will have a profound impact on Israel’s future, and determine the coalition and diplomatic moves Netanyahu will have to make to protect Israel’s vital interests after a new American president takes office.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.



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