Wednesday, December 02, 2020

The "French initiative" offers new multilateral approach to Israel-Palestine peace process

By Lili Martinez - June 17, 2016
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Peace Process]

The rise of ISIS. Massacres and sieges in Syria, attacks and counter-attacks in Iraq. Libya spiraling into chaos, and Yemen falling apart. There are many reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years. It appears that the great powers have lost interest in finding a solution to this decades-old conflict. With President Obama’s term reaching its end, the United States has all but given up, at least for this election cycle.

So it came as a surprise, in January of this year, when France announced its intention to organize a multilateral conference to restart negotiations for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. On Jan. 29, former French foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius announced his country would begin preparing an international conference to bring together the United States, European countries, the Arab league and other partners to “preserve and make happen the two-state solution.” Fabius added to France24 that if the conference were to fail, “in this case, we need to face our responsibilities by recognizing the Palestinian state.”

The Palestinian Authority welcomed the initiative, while senior Israeli officials reacted negatively to Fabius’s implied promise to recognize a Palestinian state. A senior US official released a statement which emphasized that “the preferred path to resolve this conflict is for the parties to reach an agreement on final status issues directly.”

The call for more rounds of bilateral talks comes frequently from the Israeli government and its allies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that peace cannot come from international conferences, but must come from direct negotiations.

According to Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer of Political Science at Birzeit University and a former negotiator for the PA, this argument is a red herring. “At face value, appealing to bilateral, direct negotiations can be convincing for people who do not know the details,” Khatib told Palestine Monitor. “But if you check with any Western diplomat who is involved [...] he or she will tell you that Netanyahu has been manipulating bilateral talks and taking advantage of the bias of the US.”

Khatib said the repeated failures of bilateral talks only narrow the window of opportunity for establishing a Palestinian state and implementing the two-state solution, “which is the only solution that the international community is in agreement on.”

It has been two years since the last major peace effort to resolve the conflict failed, and the last international conference on the issue was held in 2007. France hopes to breathe new life into the process with a series of conferences and working groups to discuss issues related to the two-state solution. In order to garner international support for their initiative, France has stepped back from its statement that it would recognize a Palestinian state, and sent a special envoy, Pierre Vimont, to Arab league countries in the months leading up to the first conference.

During the first conference, representatives from 28 Arab and Western countries, the Arab League, European Union and the United Nations met in Paris and issued a joint communique. According to the communique, “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.” The parties also expressed their concern about ongoing acts of violence and settlement activities 'imperiling the prospects for a two-state solution.”

Mustafa Barghouti, founder of the Palestine Medical Relief Society and head of the Palestinian National Initiative, told Palestine Monitor that the statement was vague and missing several key components. “Up till now, the French initiative cannot be called yet an initiative because there are many things that are missing and that we hope will be arranged,” he said, including clear terms of reference which allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state and complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories. In addition, “there should be clear determination that the conference will take place regardless of Israeli occupation,” Barghouti said.

The next step after the conclusion of the first conference is to form smaller working groups, which France hopes will begin their work by the end of the month. The groups will address issues like economic incentives and security guarantees which could encourage the two sides to participate in internationally-led peace talks. Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst with the Middle East program of the International Crisis Group, told Palestine Monitor that the success or failure of the French initiative will ultimately come down to the performance of these working groups, and whether they are able to deliver strong incentives to regional and international stakeholders to move forward. “It doesn’t look like [the two sides] want to cooperate together directly, and therefore it’s really about what the international community will do,” Zalzberg added.

Any Western diplomat who is involved will tell you that Netanyahu has been manipulating bilateral talks and taking advantage of the bias of the US.

France hopes to encourage Israel and Palestine to enter into talks by the end of the year. Despite Israeli opposition, a second conference is planned for this fall. “In light of this existing situation, the big question facing this proposal is, what will the international community do when we reach the moment of truth [...] when Israel is trying to reject and obstruct everything?” Barghouti said. “In my opinion, the credibility of Europe and the French initiative itself depends on their ability to exercise pressure on Israel so that if Israel continues to reject peace, they should take punitive action, including sanctions.”

It remains to be seen whether Israel will accept the outcome of the upcoming meetings and another possible international conference in the fall, but the prospects do not look good. “The other side is completely unhappy with this initiative,” Khatib explained. “It’s being resisted strongly by the US and by Israel, so I’m not sure about the chances of it.” Without Israeli acceptance, it’s unlikely the French initiative can get past theory and into practice.

Xavier Abu Eid, spokesman for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, reiterated the PLO’s support for the plan, but said nobody is celebrating yet. “I think there’s a sense that there is something, but I don’t think people are hopeful that things will work,” he said. Their skepticism comes from 20 years of negotiations during which “the only thing they saw is more settlements and more impunity.” Nevertheless, “we hope countries understand that it’s the only way to move forward.”

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