WASHINGTON WATCH: The French connection

As Fabius plans his peace conference he should contemplate the words of a frustrated secretary of state James A. Baker III: “We can’t want it more than they do.” And for now they don’t want it.

February 3, 2016 18:02
4 minute read.
Isaac Herzog

FRENCH PRESIDENT François Hollande welcomes opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog to Paris on Friday.. (photo credit: EREZ LICHTFELD)


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French plans to convene a Middle East peace conference are doomed from the start. Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog put his finger on why: both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas “are cowards,” he said.

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders talk a good game but when you get right down to it, they have proven over the years to be unwilling and incapable of any meaningful movement toward peace.

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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the man behind the new French initiative, aptly warned time is running out for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He announced last week that France wants to convene an international gathering of European, American and Arab leaders to resurrect peace negotiations, probably this summer, and if that fails, he said Paris would unilaterally recognize Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu angrily rejected Fabius’ vow to recognize statehood if his conference failed as an incentive for Palestinians to drag their feet. It’s a valid point. Abbas has a history of stalling peace talks even when his demands, such as a settlement freeze in 2009-10, were met.

“This is no way to negotiate,” said a Netanyahu spokesman. The trouble is it is hard to convince anyone that Netanyahu really wants to negotiate anything. While the French and others look for ways to resuscitate the peace talks Netanyahu prefers cryogenically freezing them while he keeps expanding settlements, a surefire way of killing new talks before they even begin.

US President Barack Obama long ago gave up any expectation of brokering a peace agreement because he felt neither party showed much interest, although his indefatigable secretary of state still clings to a misguided morsel of hope.

The United States has blocked previous French efforts to get the unwilling adversaries back to the negotiating table. Fabius last summer was shopping around a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Israeli settlements, set a date-certain to end the occupation and to recognize Palestinian statehood.

The administration has signaled opposition to the latest French initiative as well, repeating its longtime position that any deal must be the result of direct negotiations between the two parties.

After initially rejecting the French proposal totally, Netanyahu said he might consider it if Fabius removed the statehood recognition, but that is what the foreign minister considers a key to getting the Israeli leader to take the talks seriously. The prime minister’s great fear is that if France starts the recognition ball rolling other European states may follow. Already the EU is saying goods produced in West Bank settlements cannot be labeled as made in Israel. Israel’s closest allies in Europe and North America are increasingly critical of Netanyahu’s aggressive settlement expansion and see it as aimed at preventing a two-state solution.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, stating the obvious, said settlement expansion raises questions about Israel’s commitment to the two-state approach, and Fabius warned that it, plus Palestinian frustration and violence, threaten to “disintegrate” the chances for peace.

Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu’s former justice minister and peace negotiator, believes “only an Israeli diplomatic initiative” will get Israel “out of the grip of international pressure, which is becoming tighter and tighter still around our necks.”

Netanyahu has said he is ready for direct negotiations with no preconditions, but that’s not quite true. His two biggest demands are deal breakers: Palestinians must recognize Israel as the Jewish nation state and Jerusalem must remain undivided. Abbas has his own as well, basically that Israel must agree to his basic demands in advance of negotiations.

In last year’s campaign Netanyahu vowed there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, and few bought his post-election efforts to walk that back, especially after he went on to build an extreme-right coalition dominated by rejectionists rather than a more centrist government.

The prospects for peace are slim to nil for the foreseeable future. The current wave of Palestinian violence may be the work of lone-wolf actors, but the PA leadership is doing little to condemn or curtail it. Violence by Israeli extremists is condemned by Netanyahu, but flaccid investigations and prosecutions tell a different story.

Zehava Gal-On, head of the leftist Meretz party, said “Netanyahu may be excellent in identifying threats, but he’s very bad at identifying opportunities and finding solutions.” She said the prime minister’s rejection of Fabius’ proposal was tantamount to giving the French “the middle finger.”

As Israel’s friends become increasingly convinced that Netanyahu would rather build settlements than make peace, the international pressure and isolation are likely to grow.  In the present climate of violence, Israeli voters may not be ready for a Palestinian state, but that doesn’t preclude Israel from taking measures to reduce tensions and improve the climate for future talks.

For all his years in office, Netanyahu has yet to produce a peace plan Israel’s friends and its adversaries could take seriously. Nor has he tried to engage the Arabs on their 2002 peace proposal.

At the same time, Abbas, who has rejected far-reaching offers from previous Israeli leaders, has been conducting an anti-Israel campaign among world leaders and international agencies that only undermines the Israeli public support for peace.

Neither man, it seems, wants to go down in history as the one who finally recognized the other side’s sovereignty.

Making peace takes courage, something Israeli and Palestinian leaders sorely lack. Each seems intent on making sure nothing happens and the other guy gets the blame.

As Fabius plans his peace conference he should contemplate the words of a frustrated secretary of state James A. Baker III: “We can’t want it more than they do.” And for now they don’t want it.

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