The French initiative does not have greater odds of success compared to previous initiatives and efforts. In truth, it has smaller odds, given that France and Europe do not have the ability to pressure Israel even if they should have the will to do so.
The United States, meanwhile, is unenthusiastic about the initiative, focusing its efforts currently on undermining its substance and maintaining the power of initiative in its own hands. Furthermore, the initiative had a low ceiling, much lower than international legitimacy.
In order not to be stillborn, the initiative sought a reference framework to guarantee what could be agreed upon.
Furthermore, the maximum extent it could achieve, if anything at all, is to resume bilateral negotiations with some ceremonial international backing, meaning blocking other options and wasting further precious time, which will be exploited by Israel to continue to change the facts on the ground in a way that would make Israeli terms the only practical solution on the table.
Therefore, it would be a mistake to give blanket consent to the French initiative. Instead, the position on it must be based on how much it is committed to Palestinian national rights.
The “French Initiative” emerged in 2014, when France proposed a draft UN Security Council resolution that included the principles, foundations, and standards that are supposed to govern the peace process to ensure its success. However, the draft resolution was opposed by the US and Israel, with reservations from Germany and Britain. The Palestinian leadership could not accept it either, as it contained some points that undermined national rights such as recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state,” despite it containing some positive points. For example, it sets a timeframe for negotiations and another for implementing agreements, in addition to creating an international group to keep up with negotiations and enable their success.
At the start of this year, France renewed its political demarches in a different way compared to previous efforts. The new points included:
First: The need to establish the international group to agree on a reference frame for the negotiations by holding an international conference without the participation of Israel and Palestine. The conference was held on June 3.
Second: Holding an international conference preceded by forming a working group for regional security and economic cooperation and building the institutions of the Palestinian state. The two phases were supposed to be concluded before the summer of 2016, but the conference was postponed to the end of the current year. It is not clear if the conference will be held at all at this stage.
The Élysée Palace has always sought to appease the Netanyahu government and Washington, which has led to amending the French ideas. After backtracking on putting forward a draft UN Security Council resolution as a first step, the issue of specifying the reference framework of the international meeting was abandoned, instead opting for a general wording. In other words, the reference frame chosen was not international law and UN resolutions. Instead, it is being sought to find another framework that would have a lower ceiling compared to international legitimacy. Likewise, the French promise of recognizing the Palestinian state quickly evaporated, as French efforts failed following Israeli objections.
The French prime minister called on the Arab countries to recognize Israel first to encourage the latter to accept the Arab Peace Initiative, which links recognition of Israel and Arab normalization to Israel’s agreeing to withdraw from the Arab lands occupied in 1967. France apologized for UNESCO resolution on al-Aqsa Mosque, and pledged to reverse this position in any new vote. France, more importantly, downplayed the importance of the role of the international contact group, and the essence of its efforts and of the upcoming international conference, according to a speech by the French president at the opening of the Paris meeting, became to encourage Israel and Palestine to resume bilateral talks.
France also encouraged the Palestinian leadership—which obliged—to freeze its efforts regarding putting forward a draft UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements, saying this would hinder French efforts! even though it is actually supposed to help them succeed. The French position was also sharply against boycott of Israel, claiming this was anti-Semitic.
The results of the Paris meeting were disappointing. So much so that most Palestinian leaders expressed shock by how the meeting was hijacked by the US Secretary of State, who tried to impose a very bad formulation whose essence was: Launching Arab economic and security normalization with Israel and building the foundations of the Palestinian state, in return for extending the transitional period, effectively emptying the proposed content of the final statement from its substance.
The statement did not cover many issues, and was general without real steps and goals, or tangible plans, implementation mechanisms, or timeframes. It also equated between the two sides.
The repetition of previous positions in the statement such as emphasizing a just, lasting, and comprehensive solution and the two-state solution and the risks surrounding it was also not enough. The statement warned that the status quo was unsustainable, calling for confidence-building measures and creating conditions to end the occupation that began in 1967, solving final status issues through direct negotiations based on resolutions 242 and 338, and building on relevant Security Council resolutions in addition to stressing the need to implement the Arab Peace Initiative.
All sides including the Palestinian leadership are aware that the current situation does not afford any real possibility for reaching an agreed solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For one thing, Israel is governed by a racist extremist government that has revived plans for a Greater Israel, believing that Arab, regional and international changes, and the weak and divided Palestinian situation that lacks options, gives Israel a historic opportunity to fulfill its plans. It would move from its policy of managing the conflict while preventing a solution, to imposing an Israeli solution whether with the agreement of the parties or through unilateral steps.
In this context, the most these initiatives, such as the French initiative, can offer is to preserve the status quo and prevent a full Palestinian-Israeli conflagration, while preserving the so-called “two-state solution” until future conditions become available to achieve it. The goal is to keep the Palestinian state option alive, because there is a French, European, and international belief that the death of the two-state solution despite declining interest in the Palestinian issue threatens peace and security, fuels terrorism, and encourages continuing waves of migration.
1. The French Position
France’s current position is a departure from its traditional one, which was more sympathetic to the Palestinians. France is now more understanding of the Israeli position, constantly seeking to accommodate it. This raises questions regarding the ability of the French initiative to continue and succeed, because without serious pressure on Israel, no initiative seeking accord can succeed.
France wants to achieve success because it needs one, especially after its resounding failure in Syria. Paris realizes that the ceiling of expectations is low since the French president is serving the last year of his term. It is enough for French diplomacy to succeed in moving the frozen Palestinian issue as a result of the regional landscape, which may improve the president’s party’s odds in the coming elections and fill some of the vacuum resulting from the failure of efforts and initiatives meant to secure a solution with the political process currently at an impasse. Indeed, this vacuum may be filled by other parties if the political process is not resumed, especially with the preoccupation of the US administration with the coming presidential election.
Clearly, the Élysée Palace knows well that France cannot replace the United States. Therefore, what Paris is doing is playing in “extra time,” in coordination with the US administration. It is not unlikely that the international conference that is supposed to be held this year would be postponed if the White House requests it, until after US elections and the emergence of a new administration. Another thing that encourages France to continue its efforts is EU support for its initiative that came after long hesitation, despite the fact that Brexit could play a negative role.
2. The Israeli Position
The Israeli government is opposed to any international action that leads to the participation of international players in the negotiations, because it prefers to be alone with the Palestinians in direct bilateral negotiations. Even previous US sponsorship of negotiations were reluctantly accepted by Israeli governments, which sought to keep this limited. For this reason, Israel is opposed to the French initiative, but it uses this to tame the French side and force it to align itself closer to Israeli conditions and attitudes.
What further reinforces the Netanyahu government’s rejection of the French initiative is its preference for the “regional solution.” This is especially after the call of Egyptian president to turn the cold peace into a warm one through Arab-Israeli negotiations of which the Palestinian issue would be a secondary byproduct, where the negotiations would focus on establishing developed Arab ties with Israel. This bid has found traction recently, since there is a joint hostility to the “Iranian Shiite threat” and the rise of “Sunni Muslim terrorism.”
Israel was forced in the past to give priority to concluding a peace treaty with the Palestinians, in the hope this would open the doors of the Arab region. In recent years, however, Israel started staking its bets on an agreement with the Arab countries to impose a peace settlement under its terms on Palestinians.
Netanyahu clarified his position fully on the Arab Peace Initiative following reports that claimed he had finally approved it, saying there would be no negotiations on the basis of it unless it is amended with regard to the condition of Israeli withdrawal and the references to resolving the refugee issue. Netanyahu does not content himself with the Arab concession regarding an “agreed solution” for the refugee issue on the basis of resolution 194.
Notwithstanding the above, Israel did not stop its unilateral or US-backed attempts to tame the French initiative to bring it closer to Israeli conditions and dictates. Israel, managed to be strongly present despite its absence in the Paris meeting, as is clear from the final statement we addressed. Indeed, what can an international conference in which Israel participates achieve if it cannot convene unless Israel agrees to participate in it?!!
3. The Palestinian Position
The Palestinian leadership welcomed the French efforts from the start, despite its prior knowledge of the low ceiling of the initiative. The Palestinian side staked its bet on maintaining the status quo until further notice, a desirable outcome as it would spare the Palestinian Authority having to implement its threats of pursing other options. Thus, the Palestinian leadership gave the efforts its blanket approval, promoting it among Arab and non-Arab countries. The Palestinian Authority dealt with the French proposal in the manner of a drowning a person clutching at straws, regardless of how and on what conditions, and of what risks entails the lack of a bare minimum of conditions that can protect the Palestinian issue and interest.
To go with this wager, the leadership agreed not to take part in the Paris meeting. But this is a dangerous move; how can an issue be discussed in the absence of its stakeholders, under the pretext that some brotherly or friendly Arab and foreign parties are present?!
It is illogical for the main stakeholders in the issue, who struggled and sacrificed for long so that the Palestinians are represented, to be absent, especially so in light of the dismal Arab conditions. It is futile to entrust the Palestinian issue to Arab states when the Arab states are at their weakest.
Despite the disappointment of the leadership regarding the results of the Paris meeting, it swallowed the reservations made by most of its members, and renewed support for the French initiative as “the only game in town.” The only consolation is that Kerry did not fully succeed—with the collusion of some European countries—to impose the real agenda behind it, namely, paving the way for overt normalization and relations between the Arab countries and Israel without the latter even agreeing to the Arab Peace Initiative.
1. First Scenario: International Conference is Not Held
This scenario proposes that the initiative would fail to convene an international conference as a result of Israeli opposition and the unwillingness of the US administration to apply pressure on Israel, as well as the unwillingness of France and the EU, especially following Brexit. Indeed, one of the implications of Brexit could be the rise of isolationist and right-wing tendencies in Europe focusing on internal affairs, which would be in favor of the Israeli stance.
This scenario will be even more likely if Donald Trump wins the US election, particularly since the US administration does not seem to be willing to submit a draft UN Security Council resolution on Palestine before the end of Obama’s term that would include the foundations and reference frames for the peace settlement. The most that the US administration can do is issue a presidential declaration that would have no real value, but still include many clauses that undermine Palestinian rights, such as recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state,” its sovereignty over the “Temple Mount,” the principle of “land swaps,” and the annexation of settlements in eastern Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank to Israel, as well as the rejection of the right of return and the adoption of Israel’s security demands.
The scenario is further reinforced by Russia’s non-enthusiasm vis-à-vis the French initiative and resistance to the bid for an expanded international group to replace the international quartet, in addition to Moscow’s ambition to host the international conference.
2. Second Scenario: The International Conference as a Platform for Bilateral Negotiations
This scenario would see an international conference being held after the French initiative is further watered down, to be merely a platform or cover for bilateral negotiations. We would thus see another round of futile negotiations that would be even more sinister than previous ones, because they would take place under worse conditions and facts on the ground, amid more aggressive and racist Israeli plans and settlement activities. These negotiations, in the event they are held, will be accompanied by nominal international sponsorship not different from the role played by the Quartet, which postponed the issuance of its report several times (not yet issued at the moment of writing) so as to avoid antagonizing Israel, because it partly blames it for the failure of peace efforts.
To be successful, this scenario needs to combine pressuring and inducing Israel, with some degree of US and European pressures applied on Tel Aviv.
3. Third Scenario: Arab-Israeli Negotiations
This scenario would see the merging of the French and Arab initiatives to hold Arab-Israeli negotiations for security, regional, and economic cooperation, normalizing Israeli-Arab relations, and creating an Arab-Israeli alliance against so-called “Iranian Shiite threat and Sunni terrorism,” in return for returning to the plan of building the foundations of the Palestinian state, extending the transitional period, and offering economic and other incentives to the Palestinians.
This scenario could see the holding of an international conference for the purpose of giving cover to Arab-Israeli negotiations, and the regional solution it may reach or that could be achieved without holding the conference. Some reports indicate an international conference could be held in Egypt to be chaired by France, but Egypt refused this wanting to preside over it itself.
This scenario could see Palestinian-Israeli negotiations as well, and new interim agreements that may or may not involve Arab parties side by side with Arab-Israeli cooperation and normalization committees, with an official or de-facto amendment of the Arab Peace Initiative.
4. Fourth Scenario: Israeli Unilateral Steps
This scenario results from the failure of all initiatives and Israel undertaking unilateral steps, such as annexing Area C or parts of it containing “settlement blocs,” or imposing Israeli laws on Area C without declaring its annexation, opening the door to major escalations.
This scenario could see Israeli steps that may deepen Palestinian division by loosening the Gaza Strip blockade to complete the normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations, after Israel rejected the Turkish condition for lifting the blockade on Gaza.
1. Pushing for a final solution amid a grave imbalance of power in favor of Israel, and the continuation of Arab unrest, as the world veers to the right and into isolationism, and amid the regional conflict raging, will only reproduce more illusions. At best, it will lead to further failure, and will not maintain the status quo that is constantly deteriorating. At worst, it will lead to a solution that liquidates the Palestinian issue, or suspend it until further notice.
2. Dealing with the French initiative and others must be on the basis of how it can serve the Palestinian issue without forfeiting Palestinian rights and fundamentals.
3. The Palestinians must refuse to return to any bilateral negotiations with ceremonial US or international sponsorship, and insist that Israel comply with international resolutions affirming the rights of the Palestinian people and seeking binding mechanisms for them.
4. Rejecting any interim solutions such as a Palestinian state with temporary borders, or in Gaza Strip, or returning to the plan of building state institutions under occupation.
5. Giving priority to ending the division and restoring unity on the basis of common grounds, as part of an agreement on national, democratic, and consensual principles with real participation for all sides. A political and resistance strategy must be developed as a prelude to rebuilding the institutions of the PLO, and the government and other issues must be reviewed as well as the form and function and commitments of the Palestinian Authority in order to render it into an instrument that serves the national program rather than being a burden thereon. The unification of the Palestinian position must be also a prelude to building an Arab and international stance supportive of the Palestinian issue.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Hani al-Masry for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.