Tuesday,19 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)
Tuesday,19 February, 2019
Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Paris and the Palestinians

The Paris Conference on Middle East Peace finally convened Sunday. While it offered little, Palestinians found something to hang on to, Dina Ezzat reports

 The Paris Conference on Middle East Peace
The Paris Conference on Middle East Peace

Just as it started on a very sombre note, with hardly any expectations, the Paris Conference on Middle East Peace that convened Sunday in the French capital, with some 70 states and organisations participating, closed on an equally subdued tone, with a call for a follow up meeting to assemble before the end of the year, “for whoever wishes to participate,” to further pursue the track of the two-state solution.

Expectedly, the conference that convened despite firm Israeli opposition and lack of any serious international or regional support, offered no major breakthrough – neither in terms of the language of its final communiqué, that simply recalled pronouncements of the Middle East Quartet on “no unilateral actions” and “direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations” and the “need to build confidence” and to “work to realise the two-state solution”.

However, it did offer the Palestinians something that is, in the words of one Palestinian diplomat, “better than nothing.”

According to this diplomat, the Paris Conference reminded the world somehow that “there is a Palestinian people that is still suffering and that is still hoping for justice to be done, and it reminded the world that has been of late seeing the Middle East only through the lens of ISIS (the Islamic State group) and the situation in Syria or Libya that there is still a people who are denied statehood and that there is a conflict in this part of the world that cannot be left unresolved if the world wants to see a stable Middle East,” the Palestinian diplomat said.

By the account of many diplomats, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was the most supportive of an initiative of French President Francois Hollande to hold a conference on Middle East peace. The Palestinians knew from the beginning, however, the limitations ahead of them. The conference was the initiative of a weak French president at a time where the US is getting ready for a transition of power, while the EU is busy with Brexit, and the Middle East is busy with many political battles amongst its states.

“Nobody thought it was going to be Madrid (the peace conference of 1991), but we still thought it was an opportunity to underline the principles of what it takes for Middle East peace to happen,” the Palestinian diplomat said.

He added that while the final communiqué of the Paris Conference is not what the PA would have hoped for in terms of blaming Israel for hindering the road towards a peaceful settlement, the Paris declaration called upon both sides to officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution, “thus disassociating themselves from voices that reject this solution”.

It also called “on each side to independently demonstrate, through policies and actions, a genuine commitment to the two-state solution and refrain from unilateral steps that prejudge the outcome of negotiations on final status issues, including, inter alia, on Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees and which they will not recognise.”

“Still, we at least got a reminder from an international meeting that these settlements are illegal and that the world would not recognise them as a fact – no matter how weakened the Palestinians have become,” the same diplomat added.

And while aware that this Paris declaration might well end up being shelved along with endless others adopted by meetings that have been held on the situation in the Middle East since the Madrid process started, the PA still regards the Paris Conference as “yet another step” in an evolving international position on the situation in the Middle East.

After all, the conference came almost right after a key UN Security Council resolution that was not vetoed by the US that labelled Israeli settlement policy in the Occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, as a “flagrant violation of international law.”

Adopted 23 December, despite serious Israeli pressure that had prompted Egypt, the original author of the draft, to withdraw its blueprint that was later championed by four other non-permanent member states of the UN Security Council, Resolution 2334 demanded Israel suspend its settlement activities.

US President-elect Donald Trump had tried but failed to block implicit US support for the resolution as Washington withheld its veto. Trump has promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would symbolically underwrite Israeli claims to the city.

“Of course, neither the Paris declaration nor Resolution 2334 would necessarily put the brakes on any acts that Trump might be planning to take, but at least these moves would have to be taken into consideration by US foreign policy institutions. But I think that we still have to wait and see what Trump will do,” said prominent Palestinian commentator Helmi Moussa.

“In this sense, the Paris Conference, maybe like Resolution 2334, is essentially about a collective message from the world to Israel that it has to act in a way that could allow for the two-state solution to happen,” Moussa said.

Moussa added: “Also, in a sense, the Paris Conference was more about a reminder of the basics principles that the international community agrees on when it comes to the issue of Middle East peace. But we cannot say that it would necessarily go very far.”

Cairo-based European diplomats said late last week and early this week that they are not sure that Trump would address Middle East peace, or the Israeli-Palestinian track specifically. In the words of one, “I think it is almost certain that the one thing that Trump wants in this part of the world is the fight against Islamic groups of all sorts. He would otherwise want to lend all possible support to Israel.”

Consequently, these diplomats argued that it would not be unlikely for the follow up conference that Paris promised before the end of the year to fail to convene.

The French were originally hoping to have this week’s conference some time before August 2016. It was delayed to November before it finally assembled Sunday.

Moussa said he is not convinced that any major developments would happen before the end of the year on any serious process of negotiations. This, he argued, is not just because in his first few months in office Trump would be very busy with other priorities, but also because the world is still not ready to do what it takes to enact the two-state solution. “And of course, the countries of the region have so many priorities with their internal issues.”

Meanwhile, the Palestinian diplomat said that the PA would continue to lobby anti-settlement support. “But at the end of the day, our cause is not a world priority and we know it – except maybe if there is a major crisis on the ground and then it would be different.”

“Let us be clear here. The French thought of this conference at a moment when there was a serious concern of a potential new Intifada. This was not something that Europe was willing to have alongside all the issues of the Middle East,” he stated.

French diplomats have said that the conference was designed to give diplomacy a chance and to avert the scenario of a major crisis that could erupt if the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate for Palestinians. However, the Palestinians made it very clear to Paris, as to Cairo, that in the summer proposed to host direct peace talks, the PA will not move towards talks prior to the suspension of Israeli settlement construction.

According to Moussa, “in this sense, the Paris Conference has offered [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas considerable support.”

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