Talk about some negative diplomatic vibes.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders spent three days in the region this week.
Arriving Sunday night, he went straight to Ramallah and a meeting with Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki. Afterward, at a press conference with Maliki, he pledged his country’s allegiance to the new French diplomatic initiative.
“We are supporting the French initiative,” he said, “because we need to do something. We need to have at least a conference, and then maybe to start a process, and we are very open to take part if possible... in such a process.”
The next day Reynders met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After that meeting, there was no press conference, only a four-sentence statement from the Prime Minister’s Office that included the following: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed regarding the French initiative that initiatives like these allow the Palestinians to evade direct negotiations and thereby make peace more distant.”
In other words, Israel and Belgium disagree fundamentally over the diplomatic initiative on the horizon.
Let’s be honest, Belgium is not that important in this equation. But that same negative dynamic is likely to be on display Sunday as well, when French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault comes to town to sell his country’s plan.
France, of course, is a much bigger Mideast player than Belgium, and – with its initiative – wants to carve out an even more central role.
Broadly speaking, the French initiative includes a summit of some 30 countries and international organizations in Paris at the end of the month to discuss parameters of an agreement. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have not been invited to attend. This is to be followed by some kind of large international conference – sometime later in the year – with the participation of the sides. The French have already declared that if that conference fails, they will recognize a Palestinian state.
In parallel, the Quartet – made up of the US, Russia, EU and UN – is expected by the end of the month to issue a report laying out what it sees are the roadblocks to peace, and how to break through them. Expected to take pride of place in that report, which the Americans have taken a lead in writing, are the settlements.
France’s desire to play a more central role in the Mideast diplomatic process is one reason the US has so far not publicly backed its initiative, and why US Secretary of State John Kerry has not committed himself to attending the summit. Although the Obama administration has failed in its goal of brokering a Mideast deal, that does not mean that Washington is now willing to cede center stage to the French.
The uncomfortable optics of the Reynders visit made clear that Israel is strongly opposed to the French plan. That opposition will get even louder during Ayrault’s visit.
“Israel opposes the French initiative because it believes the only way to get to a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is through direct negotiations,” Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold told The Jerusalem Post
, explaining clearly Jerusalem’s position on the matter.
“The French initiative is likely to become a detour which lets [PA President] Mahmoud Abbas escape direct negotiations with Israel.”
Gold said that the ministerial meeting the French hope to convene has certain goals.
“I think they are going to want to reaffirm the two-state solution, and I think they will want to discuss what would be the basis for any future negotiated solution. This looks to an observer like me that the conference will be proposing parameters to a solution.
“The third point I think they will try to do is talk about how the international community could be effective, and then they might talk about a follow-up conference,” he said. “That now looks like those are the key elements of the initiative.”
So what is so bad about that? he was asked.
“It would be much easier for Abbas to come to Jerusalem to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu, rather than set up this multi-state enterprise in Paris, which I don’t think gets us any closer to a negotiated solution, and in fact makes a negotiated solution more distant,” he replied.
According to Gold, there are “different international actors” who are very keen on wanting to enunciate the parameters of a peace settlement. Israel’s problem with that, he said, is that those parameters may not take into account Israel’s vital interests.
Gold said that Israel’s concern is that a “new mechanism for resolving the conflict” will be created “which is different from direct negotiations.” The key to solving this conflict, he stressed – echoing Israel’s much repeated position – is “bilateral direct negotiations and not huge international conferences.”
Israel has traditionally opposed international conferences, concerned that they invite unfair pressure on it from peripheral countries – such as Belgium, and others – invited to sit around the table.
In recent years, however, Netanyahu has discussed a confluence of interests in the region between Israel and states such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and some other Persian Gulf countries. He has argued that reaching accommodations with them first could in fact help find a solution to the Palestinian issue, because they might then push the Palestinians to show some flexibility.
In that case, Gold was asked, why is an international conference – that includes the Arabs states – necessarily bad?
“One can come up with a mechanism for the Arab states to become more active in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations,” he said. “But an international conference that looks more like the UN than a real negotiation is not going to be the way we are going to get there.”
As to what Israel can and will do if the French don’t heed its objections and continue to press forward with their plan, Gold – a veteran diplomat – said: “All you can do in diplomacy is first and foremost clearly state your position, so no one can misunderstand what your thoughts are. And that is what Israel is doing.”
One of the major things missing from the initiative, he said, is any type of Palestinian recognition of the rights of the Jewish people to a nation-state of its own, something the Palestinians have consistently refused to do.
“I don’t see in the principles put forward by the French initiative some reference to the Jewish state,” Gold said.
Asked whether the addition of such a clause would lessen Israel’s opposition, he replied: “I think that would be a very important factor. All I’m saying is that there are things missing in this initiative.”
Gold expressed skepticism about whether – from Israel’s point of view – anything positive could come from either the French plan or the Quartet report.
“If you believe that the way to make any progress in peacemaking is for the parties to sit down and talk face-to-face, then it becomes hard to imagine that some kind of international conference or international report will move us along the way,” he said, adding that in the final analysis the ones who are going to implement anything on the ground are the Palestinians and the Israelis, and not international actors.
International involvement in the region, he said, is also why Netanyahu took his cabinet to the Golan Heights in mid-April and declared that Israel has no intention of ever withdrawing from there, a move that triggered a number of capitals – including Washington – to reassert that they do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area.
Asked about the wisdom of putting the issue on the international agenda, Gold said that it already is on the agenda, and that what Netanyahu did was merely stake Israel’s claim before the world powers, once again, draw new Middle East boundaries.
“Today we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement,” Gold said of the accord signed on May 16, 1916, that divided the former Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire.
“But you don’t have to be an international diplomat to imagine that it is very possible that in the basement of one of the chancelleries in Europe or elsewhere, there is a modern Sykes-Picot sitting down and trying to imagine how the Middle East will be divided in the future. Before anybody gets any ideas about the Golan Heights, it was important for the prime minister to lay down his claim that the Golan will remain Israeli territory.”
UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura first raised “the restoration of occupied Golan Heights as an essential principle of a political solution in Syria” on March 24, Gold said. Netanyahu, he added, only raised the issue in public after the UN envoy “put it on the table.”
“With international diplomats sitting and trying to devise how the future of Syria will look like, it becomes important for Israel to put down its claim to the Golan Heights,” he added.
“In an era of chaos in the Middle East, to have that strategic territory in hostile hands would be a disaster for Israeli security.”