Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s objections to a French-sponsored initiative to convene an international meeting in Paris as a preliminary to a full-fledged peace conference later this year. The Paris meeting was originally scheduled for May 30. But when Secretary of State Kerry’s spokesman said that he could not attend because it was set for Memorial Day, a national holiday, Francois Hollande, the president of France, said the meeting would be rescheduled for some time this summer.
Netanyahu told visiting French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault that Israel remains opposed to the French plan and any other international effort to dictate the terms of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
After his conversation with the French diplomat, who also met with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that day, Netanyahu said to his cabinet: “I told him [the French ambassador] the only way to advance genuine peace between us and the Palestinians is through direct negotiations between us and them, without preconditions.”
Netanyahu said that he conveyed to Ayrault Israel’s outrage at “the scandalous resolution accepted at Unesco with France’s support, that denies the historical bond of thousands of years between the Jewish people and the Har HaBayis, and casts a shadow over the impartiality of the forum France is trying to convene.”
The one-sided Unesco resolution only recognizes Islamic rights to the Har HaBayis. It was disavowed last week by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, one of the most pro-Jewish senior French government officials. He called it “clumsy” and “unfortunate” and said that its passage should have been avoided. But he stopped short of affirming the Jewish history of the Har HaBayis.
Nevertheless, Ayrault rejected Netanyahu’s claim that the Unesco resolution raises doubts about French impartiality, and insisted that progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was imperative to preventing the further spread of Islamic terrorism.
“France has no vested interest, but is deeply convinced that if we don’t want to let the ideas of ISIS prosper in this region, we must do something,” he said.
The details of the French plan to convene an international peace conference remain vague and very much in flux.
US INTENTIONS STILL UNCLEAR
Secretary of State Kerry was always reluctant to commit himself to attend the Paris meeting, and when he initially hesitated, the French offered change its timing in order to accommodate Kerry’s schedule if he decided to participate. A State Department spokesman said that while the administration “welcomes all ideas to move this [peace process] forward … no decision has been made” on US participation.
Ever since the French started making such proposals, the State Department has seemed to be torn between the hope that an international conference could lead to progress and fears that it will be used as another excuse by the Palestinians to keep avoiding direct bilateral negotiations with Israel. Even after the May 30 meeting was postponed until this summer, the State Department declined to promise that Kerry would attend, citing his heavy schedule.
Israel has been pressing the White House to distance itself from the French initiative, which is seen as a French effort to fill a vacuum being left by Obama. The White House has signaled that Obama will not make another attempt to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table before he leaves office in January. However, some supporters of Israel fear that Obama may still change his mind and make a last minute effort to pressure Israel into more concessions after the November election, especially if Hillary Clinton is the winner.
The French goal for the initial meeting, whenever it takes place, is to “lay the groundwork” for a resumption of peace negotiations. Its agenda is to re-package all the economic incentives and other guarantees that countries have previously offered the two sides as part of the preparations for a formal peace conference to be held in the autumn.
FRENCH COMMITTED TO PURSUING THE INITIATIVE
After the rejection by Netanyahu, Ayrault told the Israeli media, “We aren’t giving up, and neither are our partners. I know that there is strong opposition. This is not new and it won’t discourage us. The conference will take place,” Ayrault insisted. “The goal is to help return to negotiations.”
That commitment was re-emphasized by French President Hollande when he announced that the meeting’s postponement. He said that pursuing the French initiative was of “paramount importance. If not… what will happen? Settlement building, attacks.”
“We are going to work will all the actors, the big countries and neighboring nations, to create the parameters that will allow the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table,” the French president said.
Foreign Minister Ayrault denied that the French initiative was meant as a substitute for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.
“It is very clear to us, and I said this today to both the prime minister and to President Abbas, that we cannot take the place of the two parties. Only they can conduct direct negotiations to achieve a solution, but because things are currently stuck … external intervention is necessary to provide renewed momentum,” the French foreign minister said.
Dore Gold, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said: “Israel has been very clear. We are not going to accept the French Initiative. We think it is a big mistake and we are not going to get involved.”
NETANYAHU SAYS HE FAVORS A PALESTINIAN STATE, BUT NOT NOW
Shortly after becoming prime minister in 2009, Netanyahu announced his support, in principle, for a two-state solution. However, before last year’s Knesset election, he said that it is too risky for Israel to implement such a plan now. He warned that the current climate of violence throughout the region makes any attempt to establish a Palestinian state too dangerous. Such a state would quickly be taken over by Islamic terrorists committed to Israel’s destruction, similar to what happened in Gaza after the 2005 Israeli disengagement.
In response to pressure from the Obama administration, Netanyahu re-affirmed his commitment to the peace process. He has frequently declared that he is willing to talk “anywhere, anytime” with Abbas, “without preconditions.” Netanyahu also insists that any peace agreement with the Palestinians must include their recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a “Jewish state,” a point which Abbas has consistently refused to concede.
Israel’s position is that in order to succeed, the terms of any peace agreement must be negotiated directly by Israel and the Palestinians, rather than through international conferences. Israel cites as examples the Camp David peace agreement with Egypt signed in 1978 and the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan. Both were negotiated directly and have withstood the test of time.
WHY KERRY’S PEACE TALKS FAILED
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been stalled since the most recent US-brokered round of talks collapsed in April 2014, after both sides accused the other of a lack of good faith. Abbas sabotaged last minute efforts by Secretary Kerry to keep the talks going. While Kerry was arranging for the release of Jonathan Pollard from a federal prison in return for Israel agreeing to free a group of notorious Palestinian terrorists, Abbas signaled his rejection of the peace process by publicly applying for international recognition of the Palestinian state. The move violated the ground rules of the Oslo Accords upon which the peace process is based.
Since the collapse of the Kerry talks, the French government has been seeking a diplomatic justification for its desire to give unilateral recognition to the Palestinian state. In December, 2014, the National Assembly, which is the lower house of the French parliament, voted by 339-151 to recognize the Palestinian state, echoing similar moves by parliaments in Britain and Spain. The vote was not binding upon the French government, but was nonetheless seen as a blow to Israel’s stature in the international community. Supporters of the measures claimed they were intended to help restart the stalled Middle East peace talks, but they were really meant to pressure Israel to submit to Palestinian demands.
BRITAIN ALSO STRUGGLING WITH ANTI-SEMITISM
The anti-Israel vote in the British parliament almost two years ago was a precursor to the current scandal over widespread anti-Semitism in the ranks of the British Labor Party. It was epitomized by the outrageous recent comment by former London mayor Ken Livingstone that Hitler was a supporter of Zionism in the 1930’s before “he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Livingstone made the comment in defense of a Muslim member of parliament who suggested that removing all of the Jews from Israel and sending them to the United States would solve the problems in the Middle East.
The Labor Party suspended Livingstone’s membership over the remark. Opponents of Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn point to a speech he made in 2009 in which he referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends.”
Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, confronted Corbyn last week over that comment in a heated exchange in Parliament. “Are they your friends or are they not?” Cameron asked. “Because those organizations in their constitutions believe in persecuting and killing Jews. They’re anti-Semitic organizations; they’re racist organizations. He [Corbyn] must stand up and say they are not his friends.”
The British Jewish Chronicle wrote that anti-Semitism has become “a cancer in the [Labor] Party and it is getting worse by the day. If Labor is not to lose the last residue of trust from our community, it must recognize and deal with that cancer.”
FRANCE PRESSURING ISRAEL DIPLOMATICALLY
Since the US-sponsored 2014 peace talks collapsed, France has been maneuvering to enlist the UN and the international community in efforts to pressure Israel to agree in advance to the Palestinian demands in the name of reviving the moribund peace process.
A year ago, then French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius attempted to assemble support in the UN Security Council for a draft resolution which called for an immediate resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks leading to a permanent peace agreement based on “the principle of two states for two nations.” It sought to establish a “sovereign, demilitarized Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967 lines, with mutually agreed and equal land swaps.” The French draft resolution also called for a complete, phased withdrawal of the Israeli army from the West Bank. It recognized Yerushalayim as the capital of both Israel and the Palestinian state, and sought Israeli compensation for Palestinian refugees. As a sop to Israel, the French proposal also called for mutual security arrangements to “prevent the reappearance of terror and the smuggling of munitions.”
Fabius set an 18-month deadline for signing the peace agreement, and warned that if it was not finalized by then, France would unilaterally recognize the Palestinian state.
Fabius cited the deterioration of conditions in the West Bank and the desire of French President Francois Hollande to see the negotiations completed before the end of his term in 2017 as justifications for the short deadline.
FRENCH TURN TO PLAN B AFTER UN EFFORT FAILS
The priority of the Security Council at that time was finalizing the Iran nuclear deal. In pushing hard for Congress to approve the nuclear deal after it was signed last July, the Obama administration realized it had alienated American supporters of Israel and decided not to further inflame the political situation. The US announced its opposition to the French Security Council initiative, effectively killing the proposal.
The French foreign minister did not give up. In January, Fabius announced French plans to hold an international peace conference in Paris this July designed to lead to a prompt resumption of peace talks along the lines of the failed French Security Council resolution. At the time, Fabius told French diplomats that if Israel refused to cooperate with the conference, “we need to face our responsibilities by recognizing the Palestinian state.”
Two weeks later, Ayrault was appointed by Hollande to replace Fabius as foreign minister, but French policy did not change. France continued to press for convening the international conference, even though Israel had announced its opposition in a statement which said, “Israel supports direct negotiations with the Palestinians but opposes any attempt to predetermine the outcome of negotiations.”
The Palestinian Authority was quick to endorse the French plan because it would reward them for refusing to resume direct negotiations with formal recognition by France. However, the French Foreign Ministry accepted the validity of Israel’s objection to the threat to recognize the Palestinian state if a peace agreement was not reached, and stated that such recognition “would not be automatic.”
Despite Israel’s firm opposition, the French continue to plan for the international gathering that was originally scheduled for May 30. Participants would include representatives of the Middle East Quartet (the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations), the Arab League, the other members of the UN Security Council and about 20 other countries, but Israel and the Palestinians are not invited.
CLINTON DEFENDS ISRAEL
Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton and former US Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk, spoke out in defense of Israel against critics who falsely claim that it deserves the blame for previous failures to reach agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state. Bill Clinton sponsored the failed 2000 Camp David peace conference. He also made a last minute effort, before leaving office in January, 2001, to finalize the peace agreement which was being negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian representatives in the Egyptian resort of Taba.
Indyk was deeply involved in the Clinton-era peace efforts and later served as the US ambassador to Israel. More recently, Indyk was Kerry’s chief aide and go-between in the round of peace talks which collapsed in April, 2014. Indyk and Kerry have put much of the blame for that failure on Israel’s pursuit of its West Bank settlement policy, even though permitting settlement construction to continue was one of the conditions which Israel insisted upon, and the US agreed to, when that round of peace talks was started.
However, in an interview with al Jazeera, Indyk came out strongly in defense of Israel’s actions to promote a peace agreement during the 2000 Camp David summit.
Indyk was accused at the start of an interview with Al Jazeera host Mehdi Hasan of supporting “pro-Israel” positions which disqualify the US from serving as an honest broker in the peace talks. “Yes, I am pro-Israel, but I’m also pro-peace,” Indyk replied, and then explained: “The United States is pro-Israel and that’s what gives it its influence in the peace process.
“We are not neutral; we do not claim to be neutral. We have an alliance with Israel, but in order to achieve another interest that we have, which is peace in the region… and legitimate national rights for the Palestinians, we need to be able to influence Israel.”
INDYK’S CAMP DAVID EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY
Hasan and Indyk also clashed over a key point in recent Middle East history, the failure to reach a peace agreement at the July, 2000 Camp David summit, based upon the so-called Clinton Parameters which had been proposed by Bill Clinton, who personally hosted the summit.
Indyk declared that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had accepted Clinton’s parameters, which called for establishing a Palestinian state on more than 95% of the West Bank and Gaza, while PA chief Yasser Arafat rejected it.
Hasan accused Indyk of lying, insisting that both the Israeli and PA negotiating teams had raised objections to the parameters at one point. But Indyk insisted that, “Barak accepted them.” When Hasan replied, “No he didn’t,” Indyk lost his patience.
“Excuse me. I was there when the fax came from Barak’s office to my residence in Israel, with the formal decision, signed by the prime minister, accepting the Clinton Parameters. So don’t tell me that I don’t know what I’m taking about!” Indyk said, as he pumped his fist for emphasis.
As the al Jazeera interview continued, Indyk repeated his criticisms of Israel’s more recent policies. He said that Israel’s “continued expansion of the settlements” was the key factor which “screwed up the negotiations” with the PA in 2014.
PRESIDENT CLINTON DEFENDS HIS PEACEMAKING RECORD
On the same day that Indyk was setting the record straight for the al Jazeera audience about who was responsible for the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit, former President Clinton was doing the same thing at a Ewing Township, New Jersey campaign event for his wife. When a heckler suggested that Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy as Secretary of State contributed to the devastation of Gaza, former President Clinton pointed out that the Hamas vs. Israel wars would never have happened if Arafat had not turned down the generous deal that he and Ehud Barak had offered to him at Camp David.
“I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state,” Clinton said. “I had a deal they turned down that would have given them all of Gaza, 96 to 97 percent of the West Bank, compensating land in Israel, you name it.”
The issue came up while the former president was praising his wife’s policy stances on the Middle East and her background in dealing with the region when the heckler yelled out: “What about Gaza?”
Clinton retorted that his wife played a key role in arranging a 2012 cease fire which ended violent flare up in Gaza. “She and the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt stopped the shooting war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza,” he said.
The heckler continued, citing Mrs. Clinton’s statement that when it comes to Israel, “neutrality is not an option.” The former president then defended his wife’s campaign promise to make her support for Israel’s security clear, as well as its limitations.
“Depends on whether you care what happens to the Palestinians as opposed to the Hamas government and the people with guided missiles,” Bill Clinton said.
HAMAS’ SMART STRATEGY
The heckler called out again, saying, “They were human beings in Gaza.”
“Yes, they were,” Mr. Clinton agreed, as he signaled to the crowd to stop booing the heckler. “And Hamas is really smart. When they decide to rocket Israel, they insinuate themselves in the hospitals, in the schools, in the highly populous areas.
“They said they try to put the Israelis in a position of either not defending themselves or killing innocents” the former president added, as the audience applauded. “They’re good at it. They’re smart. They’ve been doing this a long time.”
It was at that point that Clinton expressed his regret at the failure of the Camp David negotiations at the end of his presidency, and contrasted it with the success of his wife’s peacemaking efforts as secretary of state during Barack Obama’s first term, between 2009 and 2013.
“Hillary got the only three face-to-face meetings between Mr. Netanyahu and the leader of the Palestinians, President Abbas, that anybody has gotten in the last eight years,” her husband said.
WAS FAYYAD A MISSED OPPORTUNITY?
Clinton also said that he blamed the Israeli government for failing to make more headway towards peace in negotiations with moderate former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, between 2007 and 2013.
“Then, when Mr. Fayyad was the prime minister of Palestinians in the West Bank, we had all the Muslim countries willing to normalize relations with Israel if they recognized a Palestinian state,” Clinton said. “Did I agree with the Israeli policy? No.”
But others suggest that Fayyad never had the authority necessary to negotiate the concessions on the Palestinian side that would be required to reach a peace agreement with Israel.
Fayyad was given some prominence only because he was the sole PA official with Western banking experience who was considered to be honest enough to be trusted to try to prevent the misuse of the international aid money donated for the benefit of the Palestinians. Fayyad never had a Palestinian constituency of his own, and Abbas pushed him aside whenever he tried to assert his authority.
THE LIMITS OF MRS. CLINTON’S SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL
The former president also explained to the audience at his wife’s New Jersey rally that progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians requires Israelis remain confident that the US will come to their defense if a powerful attack by an enemy like Iran threatens Israel’s survival.
“There’s nobody who’s blameless in the Middle East,” Mr. Clinton began, “but we cannot really ever make a fundamental difference in the Middle East unless the Israelis think we care whether they live or die. If they do [believe we care], we have a chance to keep pushing for peace.”
He added that despite his wife’s public declarations of support for Israel, her position is “not to agree with the Israeli government on everything, not to pretend that innocents don’t die, not to pretend that more Palestinian children don’t die than Israeli children. But that we can’t get anything done unless they believe, when the chips are down, if somebody comes for them we will not let them be wiped out and become part of the dustbin of history.”