Can France Shake Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks To Life?
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has a plan that sets a strict 18-month deadline for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to find a lasting accord. If not, he says France will recognize Palestine nationhood anyway.
PARIS — We've reached the point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where time can no longer be allowed to run its course. And so despite rampant pessimism, France is working to bring forward a new resolution with a strict deadline to the United Nations Security Council by the next General Assembly in September. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is expected to present the outline of the new peace plan on Sunday to leaders in the region when he visits Jerusalem and Ramallah.
The French resolution will propose to set both the parameters of a negotiated end to the conflict and a limited timeframe of 18 months for these negotiations to take place. But contrary to the demands of Palestinian Authority's President, Mahmoud Abbas, it doesn't include a date for the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
The resolution calls for the creation of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders, with exchange of territories agreed by both parts. This Palestinian state would be demilitarized but Israel would pledge to pull out its troops, during a transition period.
As for the thorny issue of Jerusalem, the draft defines the Holy City as the capital of the two future states.
Finally, the text suggests a form of compensation for the Palestinian refugees' right to return, the implicit meaning being that demanding such return is all but ruled out.
But with the official June 30 deadline for the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, Paris' room for maneuver appears quite limited. France's previous efforts to draft a resolution had been thwarted by the Palestinian Authority's hardline. France decided to make a new attempt after the Israeli general election which saw Benjamin Netanyahu remain as Prime Minister with a coalition that leans even farther to the right.
The repeated failures of traditional bilateral negotiations, sponsored by Washington, a partner seen as partial, have rendered promises meaningless. Since 2009, Netanyahu has been saying that he supports the peaceful coexistence of two neighbor states, but he hasn't ceased to encourage the development of additional West Bank settlements.
This gap between words and actions has transformed the prospect of a Palestinian state into a mirage. So much so that Netanyahu now proposes to pick up the talks by starting to define the limits of the block settlements that will be annexed by Israel. The Palestinian Authority considers any such demand unacceptable and has since late 2014 chosen a new strategy by denouncing Israeli occupation on all fronts: courts, diplomacy and even sporting institutions.
But Paris also has an ultimate card to play in favor of pushing forward this plan. If after 18 months no deal has been reached, France will officially recognize the state of Palestine. The deadline (six months shorter than in the previous plan) matches with the 2017 French presidential election.
"France is the only country that actually tries to do something," a European diplomat notes. "But the window is tight and it's hard to see who could have a lever. The risk is to banalize what's going on by simply lightening Palestinian suffering here and there, allowing a little economic development to take place by bumping up the number of workers traveling through Israel."
The Iran factor
As an expert in managing the security aspect of the conflict, the Israeli government knows there are other priorities on the global agenda. France has yielded to the American demand to delay all public announcement until after the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.
But beyond that, Paris is uncertain about the Obama administration's intentions. Will the U.S. break away from their long history of using their UN veto to block any resolution that would place Israel under pressure? It's a possibility that leaves experts very skeptical. "It varies, depending on the statements. We're keeping an eye on it," Laurent Fabius admitted in front of France's Foreign Affairs committee on June 9.
For the time being, Paris is content to just present its draft to its European partners and Egypt — the Arab League's leader on that issue.
What we know of the text's formulation shows how very cautious it is. In its November draft, Paris wasn't using the words "Jewish state." This time, the resolution seems to have given Israel a small concession by using the phrase "two states for two people," even though the Jews aren't the only Israeli citizens: There are also the 20% of Arabs. This compromise hasn't convinced the Arab League which prefers to save these semantic debates for the negotiations.
The Palestinians would also prefer the resolution referred to East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, so as to avoid endless debates about its perimeter. The starting point for them would be the 1949 "green line."
But on Jerusalem Day (on May 17), Benjamin Netanyahu left no room for doubt. "Jerusalem has always been the capital of the Jewish people alone and not of any other people," he said. "A divided Jerusalem is a past memory: The future belongs to a complete Jerusalem which will not be divided again."
In a recent op-ed piece in Israeli daily Haaretz, journalist Roy Isacowitz recommended France not "waste its time with the UN" and recognize the state of Palestine now. "What France appears to have forgotten in its visionary zeal is that both the Israelis and the Palestinians are deeply split over the future of the Palestinian territories and that neither is in a position to actually decide on anything."