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The Pitfalls and Opportunities of the French Initiative

Viewpoints, June 2016
Dr. Emmanuel Navon

The idea of an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was originally raised by former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in January.  This French initiative was meant to be an answer to the tense and deteriorating relations between Israel and the Palestinians since 2014.

In April 2014, the US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ended in failure; and in August 2014, a seven-week war between Israel and the Gaza Strip resulted in thousands of dead and wounded without modifying the political stalemate.  In the fall of 2014, the Quai d’Orsay started promoting the idea of a UN Security Council resolution that would impose on Israel and on the Palestinians a timetable for negotiations as well as clear parameters for the most contentious issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees).

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visits Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visits Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March
Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

The US government, however, thought that the timing of the French initiative was ill-advised because the great powers were in the midst of sensitive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.  An agreement was reached with Iran in July 2015 and two months later a new wave of violence erupted between Israel and the Palestinians.

France subsequently reiterated the need to handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but this time by convening an international conference on the Middle East.  Yet as Fabius promoted the idea of such a conference he also declared that, were it to fail, France would recognize the Palestinian state anyway.  This declaration made Israeli government officials wonder out loud what incentive the Palestinians had to negotiate in good faith now that they knew in advance that their state would gain recognition regardless of the outcome of the conference.

Fabius left office in February and his successor, Jean-Marc Ayrault, removed the “threat” of an automatic French recognition of the Palestinian state in case of diplomatic failure.  Both Ayrault and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited Israel in May to try and convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attend the international conference in Paris.  Netanyahu, however, rejected the French initiative, reiterating his preference for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The French government went ahead with its international conference on the Middle East, which took place in Paris on June 3.  The conference was not attended by the foreign ministers of Britain, Germany, and Russia, and its final statement was bland.  Yet France is planning on establishing working groups among the countries that attended the Paris conference.  Diplomatic activity and even pressures are likely to continue.

Israel cannot evade the prospect of a new Security Council resolution that may not be vetoed by an Obama Administration chronically frustrated with Netanyahu and, at this point, uninhibited by the Jewish vote.

Instead of being reactive and inconsistent, Israel should be proactive and trustworthy.  It should try and influence a new Security Council resolution in two ways; a) by insisting that the “just solution” to the refugee issue should explicitly rule out the so-called Palestinian “right of return” to Israel proper, and should address the question of financial compensation for both Palestinian refugees and for Jewish refugees from Arab lands; b) by obtaining a recognition that Israel’s future borders will not be identical to the 1949 armistice lines (a recognition that would be consistent with Security Council Resolution 242 and with US President George W. Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of April 14, 2004).

But to be trustworthy, Israel will have to prove its commitment to the two-state solution by completing the construction of the security fence, by freezing construction in isolated settlements, and by drawing a plan for their voluntary and gradual relocation.

Dr. Emmanuel Navon is an international relations expert who teaches at Tel Aviv University and at the IDC Herzliya.  He is a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum and a senior analyst for I24News.