Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Paris talks?

Regional and international actors are preparing to meet in Paris to kick-start the Middle East peace process, but Netanyahu is not playing ball, writes Ahmed Al-Sayed in Gaza

Al-Ahram Weekly

France will host a preparatory meeting on 3 June for the international conference to jumpstart the stalled peace process between Palestinians and Israel. The meeting will bring together 26 state representatives, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives from the EU, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, as well as the Arab League secretary-general.

While the Palestinians welcomed the international Paris conference, the Israeli government rejected the French initiative, saying that the only way to bring peace and resolve outstanding issues is through direct negotiations without preconditions.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu countered with a number of demands and referred to the French initiative as meaningless. Speaking to his French counterpart Manuel Valls during Valls’s visit to Tel Aviv last week, Netanyahu said that Paris can keep calling it the French initiative, but with one difference: Netanyahu wants to negotiate directly with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Elysee Palace.

The Palestinians see the Paris meeting as a possible turning point for a multilateral process. They hope it will again draw international attention to the Palestinian issue and make it a priority for the international community. They also think it may revive participating states’ interest in becoming more involved in the political process and devising a mechanism for proposals that could facilitate negotiations for a peace agreement that ends the occupation and permits the establishment of a Palestinian state within a defined timetable.

Palestinians say the meeting should culminate in an international conference that leads to negotiations along the lines of the P5+1 talks between the major powers and Iran. They consider Netanyahu’s proposal for direct bilateral talks to be a diversion, a naked attempt to negotiate for the sake of negotiating, in order to buy time for his own settlement projects and the “Judaicisation” of Palestinian territory.

“The importance of the international peace conference is that it is part of France’s vision for preserving the two-state solution,” said Fayez Abu Eita, a spokesman for Fatah, which is led by Abbas. “In turn, the Palestinian leadership approaches the conference as being in opposition to the far-right Netanyahu government’s colonisation of Palestinian territory, to change the reality on the ground in order to eliminate the two-state solution, which the international community still views as the most appropriate resolution of the conflict.”

Abu Eita added: “Netanyahu and his government have totally disregarded all international efforts to achieve peace, so it’s normal they would reject the French initiative. International efforts, including French efforts, embarrass the expansionist, settler Netanyahu government, which does not want to see peace in the region.”

He continued: “Netanyahu prefers extremism to moderation. He chose a set of religious and political extremists for his government, most recently Avigdor Lieberman as defence minister. This has fettered the government and made it captive to extremism. Netanyahu also wants direct negotiations in the old style, to buy time for his expansionist settlement plans before President Abbas decides to suspend direct negotiations.”

At a press conference at the Knesset on 25 May, Netanyahu and Lieberman, the head of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu Party and former foreign minister, signed an agreement bringing Lieberman’s party into the government coalition. As part of the deal Lieberman was appointed defence minister, replacing Moshe Ya’alon.

Establishing the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, the deal secures for Netanyahu a parliamentary majority of 66 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, up from his previous 61. Since he won the parliamentary elections in March 2015, Netanyahu has been trying to expand his very slim majority, which put his government at the mercy of coalition members.

“Direct negotiations serve the objectives of Israel’s government to maintain the status quo for the coming years, in order to execute its programme to end the two-state solution, increase Jewish colonisation of Palestinian territory, demolish homes, and kill and arrest children at checkpoints,” Abu Eita said.

“President Abbas thinks there is no room now for direct negotiations and that the resolution of the Palestinian issue requires regional and international action to compel Israel to respond and accept the two-state solution.”

Abu Eita indicated that the Palestinian leadership welcomes the French initiative because they see it as an international alternative to the old negotiations model, which allowed Israel to waste time.

“The French attempt is the only one now on offer and we hope it can restrain Israel and its moves to forestall the chances for future peace, especially after the failure of US efforts to resume negotiations two years ago,” he said.

The nine months of Palestinian-Israeli talks sponsored by US Secretary of State Kerry were suspended on 29 April 2014 after Israel refused to comply with the requirements of the peace process: first and foremost, ending settlement building, accepting a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders, and releasing long-time Palestinian detainees from its prisons.

But the French initiative for an international peace conference to revive the stalled political process has no clearly articulated objectives, according to Palestinian political analyst Tawfiq Abu Shomer. He said that so far only procedural aspects have been announced, related to the convening of a preparatory meeting with international parties but absent the Palestinian and Israeli sides. A date for the subsequent international conference where both sides are present is yet to be determined.

“What’s on the table now are just ideas, talk about a meeting for the international support group on 3 June, followed later by an international conference,” Abu Shomer said. “But the content, the foundations, and the goals of the initiative have not yet been crystallised.”

He added: “In every conference, the two principal sides should ostensibly agree to it. The Palestinian side agreed, while the Israeli side is obstructing the conference because it fears it will evolve into the P5+1 model by which the Iranian nuclear crisis was resolved.”

Abu Shomer said that Israel is resisting the Paris meeting also because of its attitude towards France, which it still views as pro-Palestinian. Its recent vote in support of the UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem enraged the Netanyahu government, according to Abu Shomer.

Israel expressed its strong displeasure with the UNESCO resolution on Palestinian cultural heritage and occupied East Jerusalem in April. Israel criticised the resolution for not using the term “the Temple Mount,” used by Jews to denote Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest Muslim site, and only referred to the Wailing Wall in quotation marks. UNESCO resolved to use the term “the Aqsa Mosque,” rejecting the preferred Israeli nomenclature of “the Temple Mount”. Thirty-three nations voted in favour of the resolution (including France), six were opposed, and 17 abstained.

Abu Shomer said that US Secretary of State Kerry’s participation in the Paris meeting could perhaps constitute the beginning of diplomatic pressure on Israel, but it would not impose or bring out a resolution acceptable to both sides.

Abu Shomer said Netanyahu is insisting on direct negotiations because it gives him something for free without bringing about any genuine solution. It sends a false message to the world that he wants peace, by which he hopes to reduce Israel’s growing international isolation thanks to the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement. At the same time, it allows his government to continue colonising and confiscating Palestinian territory and maintain its siege on the Gaza Strip.

Abu Shomer said that at this critical juncture Palestinians must be united and end their divisions in order to persuade the world of the justice of their cause and return to the Arab fold, led by Egypt. Abu Shomer said the Arab Peace Initiative should be better promoted among the international community and that Arab states should make their participation in the international conference conditional on its adoption.

“The international framework offers good support for Palestinians if they use it well, because Palestinian conduct determines both the Arab and international trajectories. The Palestinian leadership should put their demands on the diplomatic agenda and not back down under any US or European pressure, like the freezing of any draft resolution in the Security Council that would condemn the continued settlement of Palestinian territories.”

An emergency meeting of the Arab League at the foreign minister level, held on Saturday, to discuss the Palestinian issue resolved to support the French initiative and asked for a timetable on negotiations. In a statement issued after the meeting, held in the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Arab ministers confirmed “continued support for French, Arab, and international efforts aiming to expand international participation in the resolution of the Palestinian issue and support for the French initiative, to start with the meeting of the support group on 3 June 2016, and the swift convening of the international peace conference.”

The ministers called for the “the creation of multilateral instruments with the objective of taking action to end the Israeli occupation and establish a fully sovereign, independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem based on the borders of 4 June 1967 ... and setting a timetable for negotiations for the implementation of agreed upon terms within a framework of a new international follow-up mechanism.”

Palestinian President Abbas, who took part in the Arab League meeting, set forth Palestinian conditions for participation in the French initiative, among them that its goal be “the achievement of the two-state vision on the basis of the borders of 4 June 1967, with the capital of the State of Palestine in East Jerusalem and with two states living side by side in security, stability, and peace if Israel wants to live in peace.”

He added: “The conference must adopt the idea that negotiations have a time limit. Implementation also has a time limit as well as a mechanism to monitor negotiations.”

In the same context, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki said that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s recent ideas for the peace process are consistent with the French initiative. Speaking on the sidelines of the emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers, Al-Maliki added that President Al-Sisi spoke about how to revive the political process and his desire to put forth ideas on the matter. While this does not mean there is an Egyptian initiative, there is interest and a recognition of the need to revive the process.

He added that the political process can be reanimated in the meeting of the international support group, to be convened in Paris on 3 June with the participation of 26 states, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, as well as the secretary-general of the Arab League, ultimately to arrive at a solution to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, which is wholly consistent with President Al-Sisi’s statement.

Al-Maliki said that after the meeting there will be an Arab assessment of its results, on the basis of which work mechanisms and future steps will be determined.

On the Israeli side, Tel Aviv officially rejected the French initiative, saying that direct negotiations without preconditions are the best way to realise peace. Netanyahu proposed a direct meeting with President Abbas in Paris.

At a joint press conference with French Prime Minister Valls, who visited Israel and the Palestinian territories last week, Netanyahu said: “Peace just does not get achieved through international conferences, UN-style. 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.”

Netanyahu continued: “Peace is achieved through direct negotiations between the parties, and in direct negotiations the Palestinian leadership must face a stark choice and this choice is simple: recognise the Jewish state or continue educating your people that one day Israel will be gone. It will create a Palestinian state not to live side by side next to Israel, but to eliminate Israel.”

He added: “So we want two states for two peoples, a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu expressed his willingness to meet directly with President Abbas at the Elysee Palace in Paris, or anywhere else, adding that all outstanding issues would be on the table, including mutual recognition, borders, refugees and settlements.

“I hope you encourage President Abbas to accept this French initiative: direct negotiations without preconditions, between the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president in Paris,” he said, addressing the French prime minister.

“I know how hard direct negotiations are, but this is how we achieved peace with Jordan and before that this is how we achieved peace with Egypt. And both peace treaties, achieved through direct negotiations, have stood the test of time. They’ve weathered many, many storms.”

On 21 May, Valls started a three-day visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories to defend his country’s initiative for reviving the peace process. Valls came to the Middle East a week after a visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Netanyahu seized on France’s vote in support of the UNESCO resolution to cast doubt on France’s impartiality on peace talks with the Palestinians, attempting to evade the initiative and international pressure to resume peace talks on a clear basis and in accordance with the two-state solution.

“The scandalous resolution that was approved by UNESCO, with the support of France, that does not recognise the millennia-long connection between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount, casts a shadow over the fairness of any summit France is trying to convene,” Netanyahu said during his meeting with the French foreign minister.


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