Five days before the swearing-in ceremony for US President-elect Donald Trump, the French government hosted a second peace conference on the Middle East in Paris, 15 January. The first had taken place 3 June 2016.
Back in May 2016, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called on both the Palestinians and the Israelis to resume their peace negotiations. The call came against French efforts that had started in the first half of last year to goad both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to go back to the negotiating table to reach a final agreement on final status issues, including borders and Jerusalem, among other matters.
Peace negotiations between the two parties had come to an end, despite the shuttle diplomacy of the US Secretary of State John Kerry, in April 2014. In the meantime, Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank has continued unabated. To make matters worse, the Israelis elected the most extreme elements of Israel’s far right to the Knesset in 2016, politicians who are not hesitant to support the annexation of most of the West Bank, if not all of it.
The main concern of all parties calling for the two-state solution, a State of Palestine and a State of Israel, living side by side within internationally-recognised borders, has been to not let the upheavals across the Middle East for the last six years eclipse the necessity as well as the importance of creating favourable conditions for the resumption of peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The consensus has been that if the frenetic annexation of the West Bank continues at the present rate, the two-state solution will become a hollow promise. There will be no territories left for a future sovereign and independent Palestine.
The underlying purpose of the Paris Peace Conference was very simple from the outset. The question has been to create better conditions for negotiations; to try to restore mutual confidence between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and come up with a set of incentives for both to agree to, so as to restart peace negotiations for a second time.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister, wrote in the French daily, Le Monde, on Saturday, 14 January, that the two-state solution is in danger, a position identical to what John Kerry said in his widely noted speech at the end of December on the same question. Also, Security Council Resolution 2334, on 23 December 2016, embodied an international consensus that time is running out, and I am afraid faster than anyone could imagine, on the two-state solution. According to the French minister, the peace process in the Middle East cannot wait any longer. Regional security and stability depends on an acceptable and agreed-upon solution to the Palestinian question. On the other hand, the status-quo is unsustainable in the medium and long run. In addition, more annexation of Palestinian lands means more Israeli occupation. He made it clear that the Paris Peace Conference is not about imposing a solution on the concerned parties, but rather to encourage them to resume peace talks. And to drive the point home that no unilateral measures would dictate peace terms.
The Paris Peace Conference on 15 January, that brought together more than 70 countries, stressed the importance of the two-state solution and that the 4 June 1967 borders are the basis for a future final agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Israeli reactions to the Paris Peace Conference were, as expected, dismissive, opportunistic and threatening. The Israeli prime minister called the conference “futile” and that it belongs to what he strangely called “yesterday”. He went on to say that “tomorrow” will be different, and that this “tomorrow” is near. Guess what was in his mind. 20 January 2017. The day President-elect Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. The Israeli prime minister is betting on the future US president to scuttle, once for all, all peace plans that have been on the table since Israel’s June 1967 aggression, and that have inspired and laid down the basic parameters of any internationally-recognised and United Nations-sanctioned final peace agreement between the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis. Those plans have been predicated on the rejection of the part of the international community of the annexation of Arab territories by force, including the West Bank.
The simple equation has been land for peace. However, since the mid-1990s, and particularly with Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, and Netanyahu before him in 1996, the Israelis have begun talking about a completely different concept: Namely, peace-for-peace. In other words, we will keep the lands that we have already occupied by naked force and later annexed, while calling on you Arabs and Palestinians to make peace with us.
No more Security Council resolutions, no more Quartet principles and no more roadmap, nor a two-state solution.
With the coming to power of the Trump administration, I am afraid the Israeli position will be based on that formula of take it or leave it. Israel’s expansionist approach should not be looked at separately from the 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917, which Israel will mark. I would not be surprised if the newly-elected US president is the guest of honour at this sad ceremony. Indeed, 2017 is a fateful year for Palestinians, the Egyptians and the Arabs.
The Paris Peace Conference is hostage to the “tomorrow” of Netanyahu in alliance with Donald Trump. Not only this conference, but the whole edifice of Middle East peace, I am afraid.
The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.