Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The French initiative

The French are pushing an initiative to restart the Middle East peace process. But Paris’s calls for negotiations are falling on deaf ears in Tel Aviv, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The French government hosted a ministerial conference on peace in the Middle East on 3 June. The ministerial conference was attended by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Middle East Quartet, key Arab and regional powers, in addition to the secretary general of the UN, the secretary general of the Arab League, and the high representative of the European Union for foreign and security policy. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco attended. The Palestinians and the Israelis were not invited.

The French initiative is a two-phase conference. The first phase aimed at laying the foundations for relaunching the peace process; the second phase will be an international conference, attended by the two main sides, the Palestinians and the Israelis, hopefully in the fall of 2016. The French initiative aims at reaffirming the commitment of the international community for a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The final communiqué of the Paris ministerial conference reaffirmed that a negotiated two-state solution is the only way to achieve an enduring peace. It underscored that the status quo is not sustainable, and that the participants will strive to help in creating the necessary conditions to restart peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. They also highlighted the potential for regional peace and security as envisioned by the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by an Arab summit back in 2002.

The Paris ministerial conference was supposed to convene end of May, but the French had to reschedule to make it possible for the US Secretary of State John Kerry to attend. When asked whether the United States would welcome the international conference envisioned in the French initiative, Kerry said that the US administration will have to discuss the matter, and will be eager to know where it is going and what is happening. It goes without saying that without US support, the second phase of the French peace initiative for the Middle East will be difficult to convene. Should we expect such support? It is not easy to provide an answer right now. For whereas the US administration, and particularly Kerry, has made it clear that it would pursue efforts to re-launch peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, despite the fact that it only has six months to go before a new US president is sworn in next January, the fact remains that the new Israeli cabinet will make it very difficult for the Obama administration to move on the peace process in the Middle East. And this may explain the answer that Kerry gave when asked what is the position of the US administration on the proposed international conference on the Middle East before the end of 2016. Of course, American participation in the Paris ministerial was of paramount importance, sending a message to the Israelis and the Palestinians that Washington still supports peace efforts even if the strategic environment in the Middle East is not conducive under present circumstances to the resumption of peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The US position was explained by State Department spokesman John Kirby, 3 June. He said that the Paris ministerial conference was an “opportunity to demonstrate that the international community still is very much committed to the goal of achieving a two-state solution”. Kirby added that the countries taking part in the Paris conference share “the same goal of advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace and a two-state solution. It remains a priority. But there is also a recognition that what we really need is solid leadership on both sides to create the conditions for a two-state solution.”

The Paris conference of 3 June demonstrated that time is running out on the two-state solution option. In other words, if the stalemate in peace negotiations remains, it would be difficult to see how at the same time next year this option will still hold true. The United States will have elected a new president whose strategic priorities in the Middle East are still unknown. The new Israeli government announced Avigdor Lieberman as defence minister, which has sent shockwaves out among the Palestinians and Israeli centrists who are for the two-state solution. As for the Arab side, it seems that their involvement in extinguishing the fires raging across the Arab world will not end anytime soon.

That confluence of circumstances could provide an opening for the Israeli government to thwart international efforts to resume peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And they will continue expropriating lands from the Palestinians and building settlements, thus creating conditions on the ground that would make the establishment of a sovereign and an independent state of Palestine next to impossible. Let alone the possibility of another military showdown between Israel on the one hand and Hamas or Hizbullah on the other hand. The latest information from Israel indicates that the Israeli prime minister is negotiating with the Labour Party and Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister, to join the government. Some observers believe that with such a strong unity government Israel could be in a position to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians in direct negotiations under international supervision and amid Western peace incentives to encourage both the Palestinians and the Israelis to make the hard choices necessary to obtain such a hoped-for deal.

When Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called on the Palestinians and the Israelis to build on the peace between Egypt and Israel, the Israelis showed interest. A high Israeli official was quoted as saying that Israel prefers to deal with the Egyptian initiative rather than the French one, even though the two are based on the same principles and have one final destination, namely, the implementation of the two-state solution. The Israeli government has, so far, paid only lip service to this outcome.

The second half of 2016 will provide us with an answer as to whether the Israelis are seriously interested in living side by side with an independent State of Palestine. The Paris ministerial conference and the two-phased initiative of the French will be a test for the Israelis.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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