This coming Friday, foreign ministers from some of the world’s most powerful countries, including the United States, Russia and Germany, as well as a handful of Arab states, will gather in Paris to discuss ways to reanimate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The two parties at the heart of the conflict will not send official representatives to this week’s conference, a precursor to a second gathering later this year that Israelis and Palestinians are urged to attend.
How is Jerusalem bracing for an event that will likely lead to additional demands on Israel to make concessions toward a peace deal?
Israeli officials this week refused to speak on record about their preparations ahead of the confab, but in private conversations indicated that Jerusalem is against the initiative, has not been invited to it, and is therefore not doing anything about it.
The lackadaisical wait-and-see approach to the Paris peace conference is emblematic of Israel’s Palestinian policy since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in 2009. Refusing to launch any diplomatic initiatives of his own, the prime minister routinely criticizes any and every plan to resuscitate the moribund peace process that is not centered on direct bilateral talks.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues to call for bilateral negotiations, often evoking Israel’s covert rapprochement with moderate Sunni states in the neighborhood as a possible catalyst for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
On Monday evening, he embraced the Arab Peace Initiative (at least partially), offering to negotiate its terms with the Arab world and hailing the Egyptian president’s recent overture to assist Israelis and Palestinians with reigniting the peace process.
This dramatic statement was meant to fend off criticism of his move to appoint the hawkish Avigdor Liberman as defense minister, and to gauge whether some warm words about the 2002 peace initiative could jumpstart a regional approach to the conflict.
To be sure, as he welcomed Liberman to the government and repeatedly pledged to frantically pursue all avenues for peace, he did not say a single word about France’s international conference.
Regardless of how the Arab world reacts to Netanyahu’s overture, Friday’s conference in Paris and its expected fallout — more pressure on Israel, which will be met with cold obduracy in Jerusalem — is liable to further Israel’s international isolation. While the conference’s goals are still undefined, it could lead to a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem or urging heightened economic and diplomatic pressures against the Jewish state.
The French initiative is a “very serious and dangerous attack” on Israel’s standing in the world, said Dan Meridor, a former deputy prime minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party. Dismissing it without offering a credible alternative toward progress in the peace process could have severe ramifications for Israel, he assessed.
“We need to launch our own diplomatic initiative. The government needs to determine what it wants in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank],” continued Meridor, who today is the president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations. If only Israel were to declare where it would want to draw the border with a future Palestinian state, it could radically change public perception about its obduracy and put the ball in Ramallah’s court, he argued.
“This is not a question of hasbara [public diplomacy]. We can’t explain our policy as long as we don’t have a clear policy.”
Hoping for a French change of heart
Israel has been adamant in its rejection of the French initiative all along, arguing that multilateral conferences cannot substitute for direct bilateral negotiations.
“In the Middle East, there are no shortcuts,” President Reuven Rivlin told French Prime Minister Manuel Valls last week in Jerusalem. “Reaching an understanding and an agreement requires direct negotiations out of mutual trust, with both sides truly wanting to live side by side in peace in this land.”
Netanyahu, too, told Valls that peace will not come through international conferences, “UN-style,” as he called it. “It doesn’t get to fruition through international diktats or committees from countries around the world who are sitting and seeking to decide our fate and our security when they have no direct stake in it.”
Trying not to appear as if he was shutting the door on a possible chance to reignite the peace process, Netanyahu professed willingness to make “difficult decisions” and implored Valls to help launch direct negotiations with the PA. He would “gladly accept a different French initiative,” one that would see him and Abbas “sit alone” and discuss all the core issues, Netanyahu said during a joint appearance in the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Every difficult issue will be on the table: mutual recognition, incitement, borders, refugees and yes, settlements — everything,” Netanyahu said. “This initiative can still take place in Paris, because that would be a marvelous place to sign a peace accord.”
Standing next to Netanyahu, an undeterred Valls reiterated Paris’s desire to “remobilize the international community” with an international conference, but also pledged to relay Netanyahu’s proposal to President Francois Hollande. “Everything that could contribute to peace and direct negotiations — we’re in favor,” Valls said.
In the Prime Minister’s Office, Valls’s words were taken at a face value. Netanyahu and his aides still believe that a French rethink of the current initiative is possible. But outside the PMO, few observers share this view that Paris might be dissuaded from its multilateral approach.
“The French are not interested in that. They know [bilateral talks initiated by the two sides] won’t happen,” said Daniel Shek, a former Israeli ambassador in Paris. France has not yet released any information about the conference, such as the venue or a list of participants, but anyone holding out for a cancellation will be sorely disappointed, according to Shek.
“Don’t hold your breath,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas has wholeheartedly embraced the French initiative. In a position paper circulated this week, the Palestine Liberation Organization explained its support for the conference by expressing the hope that it might “open a political horizon” to help solve final status issues.
“We have done everything possible to advance US-sponsored bilateral negotiations with Israel. However, due to Israeli policies to strengthen its belligerent occupation and colonization of Palestine with full international impunity, negotiations efforts have failed. The international community’s insistence to advance failed negotiations formulas have been fruitless,” the document states.
Ongoing Israeli “violations” and the the international community’s “lack of action” make plain that Jerusalem’s insistence on bilateral negotiations “merely perpetuate the systematic Israeli violation of Palestinian rights,” the PLO argues. The conference is seen as a remedy for “the failed bilateral negotiations process.”
While Jerusalem shrugs off the French initiative as a nuisance, doomed to failure like so many multilateral efforts that came before, Ramallah sees value in the proposal even if it does not immediately lead to success. For the Palestinians, the conference is another step in their ongoing effort to internationalize the conflict, and thus to “shift the inequitable power dynamic between Israel and Palestine.”