There is a set of givens in the diplomatic process that have been constant since the April 2014 breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
One is that Washington, while officially still reassessing the process, will “stay engaged.” Another is that the Palestinians will push forward with efforts against Israel at international forums. Yet another is that Israel will continuously call for the Palestinians to reenter negotiations without preconditions or diktats.
And, finally, it is a given that there will always be some kind of “French initiative” in the background.
What has also become clear is that this hovering French initiative will change from year to year, and from season to season.
In the fall of 2014 the French idea was for some kind of UN Security Council resolution calling for a Palestinian state inside the 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as its capital and a timeline to get there. In the summer of 2015 it was an international support group to augment the Quartet. And in the autumn of 2015 it was a Security Council resolution slamming the settlements. None of those ideas came to fruition.
And now, with a new year and a new season, there is a new initiative, the one Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius dropped on the laps of unsuspecting French ambassadors meeting in Paris last week: an international conference, and – if that doesn’t work – recognition of a Palestinian state.
Fabius, who is reportedly on his way out of office in the next few weeks, floated the idea of the international conference to ensure that a two-state solution remains viable.
“France will engage in the coming weeks in the preparation of an international conference bringing together the parties and their main partners, American, European, Arab, notably to preserve and make happen the two-state solution,” he said.
He said this was necessary since settlement construction continues, and France “must not let the two-state solution unravel. It is our responsibility as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.”
Then he added the clincher: “And what will happen if this last-ditch attempt at reaching a negotiated solution hits a stumbling block? In that case, we will have to live up to our responsibilities and recognize a Palestinian state.”
What is interesting about this proposal, however, is that it has not been accompanied by any painstaking groundwork. International conferences don’t just drop from the sky; they are carefully planned and prepared, including – especially – consulting and briefing the main principals, in this case Israel and the Palestinians.
But this has not been the case this time. If there is indeed a French plan on convening a conference to discuss Israel’s future, then that is news to Israel.
Sources both in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry said there have been no urgent phone calls on the matter from Paris, no special envoy hurriedly dispatched from the Élysée to discuss details or texts or possible venues.
Even without knowing the details, however, Israel quickly rejected the initiative, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explaining at Sunday’s cabinet meeting that it provides a disincentive for the Palestinians to negotiate. Why should they negotiate, he asked, if they know that without negotiating they will get French recognition anyway? The Palestinians, who unlike Israel embraced the idea, have – according to an Israel Radio report – nonetheless also not been filled in on any of the fine print.
Nor, for that matter, have the Americans. When asked about the French initiative at his daily press briefing on Monday, State Department spokesman John Kirby responded: “Actually, we don’t have very much information on this.”
The lack of any real planning has led some in Jerusalem to conclude that there is no real French initiative to convene an international conference, but rather what does exist is a very real intention by the French government to recognize a Palestinian state, just as Sweden did in October 2014.
The French parliament, in November 2014, in the spirit of the Swedish move and what was going on in other European parliaments at the time, passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the French government to recognize the “State of Palestine.” The French government was not willing to do so at the time.
But now, with French presidential elections scheduled to take place next spring, the Hollande government – according to one source in Jerusalem who carefully monitors Paris’s diplomatic and political steps – is interested in taking such a leap.
According to the source, there is pressure on the French government from the Socialist Party’s grassroots supporters as well as from the party’s left flank to take such a step before the elections.
This will solidify support for the party among it base, as well as improve its standing with the country’s significant Muslim minority.
Such a dramatic move, however, cannot be done “out of the blue,” but could be done within the context of failed efforts to convene an international conference to “save” the two-state solution.
And such a move would lead to increased pressure on Israel, because France is not Sweden, and while the Swedish move did not bring in its wake recognition by other Western European governments, the French moved could.
Which raises the question about the wisdom of Israel summarily rejecting the idea of an international conference, if this failure may lead to France recognizing Palestine.
But summarily rejecting the proposal is what one diplomatic source did within hours of Fabius’s comments last Friday, saying that the French foreign minister’s words provided a disincentive to the Palestinians to negotiate. The next day, however, the source issued another statement, clarifying that his initial rejection was only to the threat that Paris would recognize a Palestinian state, not to the idea of an international conference itself.
“If and when we get an invitation to a conference, we will study it and relate to it,” he said.
That clarification, however, was too late, and the perception created by the original, reflexive reaction was a resounding “no,” a perception strengthened further by Netanyahu’s comments at the cabinet meeting.
And that, said Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai during a discussion on the French proposal in the Knesset on Wednesday, is precisely the problem.
“The Israeli government must say, ‘Let’s think about it, let’s look at it, let’s react in a different way,’” he said. “It immediately said it is unacceptable, bad, negative, and we got into an argument with France.”
Shai said that there have been as many diplomatic initiatives in the past as stars in the sky, but Israel always had the wisdom not to reject them outright but, rather, to let the Arabs and the Palestinians have those honors.
“Why do we have to appear as the rejectionists?” he said. “What do we gain from that? Let’s sit, discuss, think; we don’t lose anything by that; we only gain regarding public opinion and the struggle against BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement]. We don’t have to be peace or agreement rejectionists.”
Responding for the government, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said that anyone who thinks that any “international magician or international initiative” will solve the problem, when the central issue is the refusal of the Palestinians to accept Israel’s existence within any boundaries, “is deluding himself.”
Using a variation on the oftheard mantra that “peace is made with one’s enemies,” Hotovely said that “peace is made with enemies who have abandoned the sword and war. Peace cannot grow in a world where boys, girls and youth are educated on a worldview that rejects our existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
Initiatives like those of the French, she said, cannot bring peace closer, when “children and youth are taught hate, children and youth are taught that murder is legitimate.”
Addressing the argument increasingly heard by leaders abroad that the current round of terrorism is due to Palestinian frustration at the stymied peace process, Hotovely said that the terrorism of the last few months is different only in scope from the terrorism of the heyday of the Oslo period.
“You claim that this [the current terrorism] is done because there is no hope, but buses exploded [during the Oslo period] when there was the greatest hope. They went up in flames and people were slaughtered in greater numbers.”
Foreign leaders who want to help, she said, need to unequivocally condemn terrorism, work against Palestinian Authority incitement, and prevent to the best of their ability the murder of innocent people.
“That is what can bring us closer together and to coexistence,” she said. “Not anything else. Not formulas tried many times in the past, and certainly not formulas that set conditions and encourage the other side to continue to go to international forums and work against Israel and try to delegitimize it. These are not things that at the end of the day will improve the situation for either side.”
Hotovely diplomatically told the French their newest initiative- of-the-month won’t work.
But what she didn’t do was tell the Israeli public what the government was going to do to constructively prevent it, nor how it would deal with a French recognition of Palestine – something that could significantly increase the international pressure on Jerusalem.