Diplomacy: Meanwhile, on the Palestinian track...

By the end of September, the status of the Iran deal will become clear. Then the UN General Assembly will convene, and the Israel-Palestinian issue will return to the world’s agenda.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Timing is everything.
The 60-day congressional review of the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, ends September 17.
If Congress rejects the deal, meaning that it does not allow the lifting of US sanctions on Iran, then US President Barack Obama will – as he has already pledged – veto any congressional action.
Congress then has 10 days to override the veto – something considered a long shot.
What that all means is that the question of whether the Iran nuclear deal will go through as it is now stands will – by September 27 – be behind us, and the world will be able to tackle other marquee agenda issues on September 28, the day the 70th UN General Assembly meeting opens in New York.
In other words, good-bye Iran, hello the Palestinians.
Sure, speaker after speaker will use their few minutes at the podium to laud the Iran deal as an accord that ensures peace and world security, but they will be providing commentary to an accord already reached. Many of them will then turn to business still unfinished – namely the Israeli-Palestinian track.
Indeed, it was no less a personage than Obama who – when addressing the UN General Assembly in 2013 – said that in the “near term” US diplomatic efforts would focus on two issues – Iran’s nuclear program and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“While these issues are not the cause of all the region’s problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace,” he said.
With 16 months left before the 2016 US elections, and 18 months until Obama leaves the White House, the president can – at least in his thinking – check off the Iranian issue. Which means that all that remains is the Israeli- Arab one.
If the nine months that have passed since the Democrats took a shellacking in the 2014 congressional elections have proven anything, it is that despite the beating, and despite the expiration date on his term, Obama has no intention of just whiling away his remaining months in office.
His Cuba outreach, initiatives on immigration and trade, and finally Iran, have shown that he does not intend to be a lame duck president, but rather wants to leave his mark until the very end.
But there is the rub. How does he leave his mark on an issue that has frustrated him so much in the past, as well as so many of his predecessors.
At this point Obama is revealing little. But after October, after Iran is behind him, it is safe to assume that both he – and his Secretary of State John Kerry – will turn their attention back to the Middle East diplomatic process. Obama and Kerry, who have already invested so much time and energy into this issue, are unlikely to now just take a pass on the matter until the time runs out on their watch.
Kerry is traveling next week to Egypt and the Persian Gulf to discuss the Iran deal with America’s jittery Sunni allies, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sarcastically noted Israel’s omission from Kerry’s itinerary, telling reporters accompanying him Tuesday on his trip to Cyprus that there was no real reason for Kerry to come to Israel to talk about the deal, since “we are not at the table, but rather an item on the menu itself.”
Israel will remain on the menu, even after the Iranian course is finished, when the Middle East Peace Process course is served.
For that reason, much attention – perhaps too much attention – was paid to a phone call Netanyahu made two weeks ago, on the eve of Id al-Fitr, to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and to a meeting in Amman last Thursday between the government’s point man on the Palestinian issue, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom – the new Tzipi Livni – and PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who has been involved in the negotiations for a quarter of a century and apparently has no replacement... ever.
These two occurrences, as well as the accompaniment to Cyprus of Netanyahu’s personal envoy on the Palestinian issue, Yitzhak Molcho, had some wondering if something is afoot.
If there is something happening, the Americans are apparently unaware, as they were reportedly not informed of the Shalom-Erekat meeting.
Anyway, the US is still engaged in a Mideast policy review, which has been under way since the breakdown of the Palestinian- Israeli negotiations in April 2014, and which they announced again after the reelection of Netanyahu in March. It is safe to assume that the roll out of the results of that review will take place before the heat of the US primaries begins in earnest early next year, and definitely before Obama leaves office. But what exactly the Americans will roll out is, at this point, unclear.
What is clear, however, is that the Middle East diplomatic process abhors a vacuum, and with the US administration not giving an indication of where they are going, the French have moved in.
A few months ago they moved in full force, expressing intent to kick start the diplomatic process by bringing a resolution to the Security Council that would set the parameters of a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, with a deadline. And if the deadline was not met, then the assumption was that the French would unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.
But on the way to the Security Council, a funny thing happened – both the Israelis and the Palestinians objected.
The Israelis objected because they were afraid of an imposed solution, and the Palestinians objected because even the French could not give them everything they wanted to see in the resolution.
The French might have been willing to give more, but in order to avoid a US veto they would need to moderate the language. But a resolution with moderate language is not what the Palestinians are looking for. So the French, according to a number of Israeli and Western diplomatic officials, have begun walking back their plan. And despite Washington’s problem in putting something on the table to move the process forward, the US is not overly keen on just moving over and letting the French take center stage.
When Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was in Israel in June he spoke of three different components to the French diplomatic plan. The first was direct negotiations, the second was the construction of an international support group to help the sides bridge the gaps, and the third element was the Security Council resolution.
With the Palestinians not interested in negotiations at this time, and both Israeli and Palestinian opposition mounting to the resolution, all that remains of the French plan at this time is the international support group.
But even this concept is very amorphous, with the general idea being the expansion of the Quartet – which includes the US, EU, Russia and the UN – to include some moderate Arab states, as well as some other European countries.
The idea is to create a wider agenda than “just” an Israeli-Palestinian accord, so that different elements will be traded off.
Regardless of whether this idea gains any traction, the French are unlikely to just completely ditch their grand plan. According to one Western diplomatic official, there could very likely be a trade-off now between the French and the Palestinians: recognition now instead of the resolution.
Yes, the French may backtrack on their resolution, but – with French presidential elections scheduled for early 2017 and this a key issue for not an insignificant part of the French electorate – they are unlikely, like Obama, to just let the issue lie.
According to this scenario, in exchange for dropping the resolution, the French will recognize a Palestinian state, following in the steps of what the Swedes did last year. But French recognition is more significant than Swedish recognition, and much more significant than the recognition of “Palestine” by several European parliaments, which followed the Swedish move.
A French recognition could lead to a groundswell among other EU states, something that would give a boost to the Palestinian strategy of trying to consolidate international support and isolate Israel. It also helps Abbas domestically against Hamas, because he could show his people that he “achieved” something – the recognition of key European countries.
This would also put Israel back on the defensive.
Netanyahu, since his election victory in March, has quietly taken pains to convince the world of a commitment to the two-state solution, and that he is willing to take steps to move forward.
That explains his remark to settlement leaders last month that at this time it is not possible to develop the settlements further, and his hinting at an unstated freeze.
But the Supreme Court made this more difficult this week, when it ordered the demolition of the two apartment buildings in Beit El.
Once that happened, it was clear that Netanyahu – for political reasons – would announce new settlement construction in Beit El, and elsewhere; something he did within hours. While this may temporarily solve an immediate domestic problem, it will also give a back wind to initiatives like those of the French.