Analysis: Europe’s Mideast peace push

Led by France, the Europeans are seeking a leading role in the peace process, but Benjamin Netanyahu is distrustful of their motives.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius presents Europe's position to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, June 21 (photo credit: THOMAS COEX / REUTERS)
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius presents Europe's position to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, June 21
(photo credit: THOMAS COEX / REUTERS)
EVER SINCE last year’s resounding American failure to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, the Europeans have been looking to step into Washington’s shoes and lead a new peacemaking effort.
France has been working on a UN Security Council resolution that would set parameters for new peace talks; former British prime minister Tony Blair has been mediating between Israel and Hamas; and the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is trying to set up a broader negotiating framework that would include Arab states.
There has been a concerted determination about the Europeans’ work with frequent visits to the region, talks with key players and the adumbration of highly ambitious peace plans. But the success or failure of their effort is likely to be determined by two non-European protagonists – Israel and the US.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown little enthusiasm for the various European initiatives. He is distrustful of their motives and does not believe the Europeans can deliver a square deal.
The question is how far they try to push a recalcitrant Israeli government. More importantly, if they do exert pressure, how much support will they receive from the Obama White House, frustrated by Netanyahu’s backtracking on the two-state solution and livid at his unrelenting interference on the nuclear deal with Iran? In late June, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visited Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank and Israel in an effort to find a formula to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The French hope to pick up from where the US left off, but avoid the mistakes that led to the collapse of the American effort.
After meetings with Fabius, both the Arab League and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the French initiative. Israel claimed the proposals were half-baked, trying to impose borders without taking its most basic security needs into account.
The idea behind the French move for a new Security Council resolution is to set internationally agreed parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The aim would be to reassure the Palestinians on what a final peace deal might look like and put international pressure on Israel to participate in serious and focused negotiations.
A UN resolution of this kind would bypass the need for consensus between the parties on terms of reference for final peace talks, which is precisely where the American- mediated peace effort broke down in early 2014.
The French have not yet finally decided on whether to go the Security Council route.
It will depend on the degree of international support, especially American, they have.
But if they do, the proposed resolution will likely refer to the November 1947 UN General Assembly partition plan, which called for the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, and which was jubilantly hailed by the Israeli state-in-themaking at the time. It will also seek to replace the 1967 UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for land for peace without going into details as the preeminent international document on peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.
The proposed resolution will call for two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace; Jerusalem as the capital of both; borders along the 1967 lines with land swaps; and a satisfactory security package for Israel.
But there are major difficulties in the way of a draft that could bring both sides to the negotiating table. For example, will it refer to Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people? If it does, the Palestinians will probably reject it and if it doesn’t, Israel might say no. And, needless to say, the Palestinian refugee question will need an open formula both sides can live with.
The French will also have to decide whether or not to include timetables for negotiations and for subsequent implementation.
The aim would be to set a target date for completion of a peace treaty in say two years by November 2017, the 50th anniversary of the occupation, and allow three to five years after that for phased implementation.
Last December, however, the Security Council rejected an Arab resolution setting a two-year timetable for a final peace deal, largely at America’s behest. But what will the American position be this time round? EU foreign policy chief Mogherini came to Israel just a week after Netanyahu formed his new government in May.
She said the fact that she had come so early “had meaning.” In late July, after a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels, Mogherini announced her intention to set up an “international support group” to give Israeli-Palestinian negotiations a better chance. The plan is to add Arab states to the international Quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia – to give Israel greater incentive to negotiate and help the Palestinians make concessions on sensitive issues like Jerusalem and refugees. The international support group could also help advance Israel-Hamas negotiations on a long-term cease-fire.
The European aim is not only to widen the negotiating framework but also to broaden the agenda. If this ambitious plan works out there would be a triple focus – on Israel’s relations with the West Bank, with Gaza and with the Arab world as a whole.
• Israel-Palestinian Authority: Peace talks based on a UN Security Council resolution or other agreed terms of reference for a two-state solution, supported by the international community and most Arab states.
• Israel-Hamas: Indirect negotiations mediated by Blair, Qatar and others for a long-term cease-fire or hudna in return for significant easing of the Israeli blockade on Gaza. This could entail port facilities for Gaza in Cyprus, where cargoes could be monitored. Netanyahu met with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in July. Both Hamas leaders and Netanyahu are due in London, in September.
• Israel-Arab World: Adding Arab countries to the negotiating framework could create conditions for talks on a full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab/Muslim states based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. This would be predicated on normalization in return for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
• If it works out, this triple focus/wide negotiating framework approach could give Israel a historic opportunity to transform its standing in the region.
Netanyahu, however, seems unlikely to rise to the challenge. His election declaration that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch was more than a vote-winning gambit. In June 2014, he outlined a new security doctrine designed to contend with regional threats posed by disintegrating Arab states and the rise of militant non-state actors like ISIS. It called for Israeli security control over the West Bank and along the Jordan River border, virtually ruling out the possibility of independent Palestinian statehood. But without a genuine Israeli commitment to a two-state solution, the triple-focus European initiative, with the possible exception of the cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza, will almost certainly prove a non-starter.
There are other indications that Netanyahu, in his fourth term as prime minister, will be reluctant to move on the Palestinian track: The right-wing nature of his coalition, his failure to give Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog a compelling reason to join the government, his hard-line foreign policy appointees, Tzipi Hotovely as Deputy Foreign Minister, Dore Gold as Foreign Ministry Director General and Dani Danon as Israel’s Ambassador to the UN – all of whom vigorously oppose a two-state solution.
INDEED, NETANYAHU’S current Palestinian policy is based on “managing the conflict” rather than solving it. This has a security and an economic plank: a strong IDF hold on the West Bank bolstered by close security coordination with the Palestinian Authority, coupled with economic measures designed to improve the quality of Palestinian life as part of the overall effort to deter violent resistance to the occupation. Netanyahu’s offer to discuss the borders of the Jewish settlement enterprise rather than borders based on the 1967 lines with land swaps seems more an attempt to create a future pretext to blame the Palestinians for failure to engage than a serious negotiating offer.
The main Israeli opposition is unlikely to press Netanyahu hard to do more, even though it takes a very different view on the two-state solution. In an article in Foreign Affairs in September 2011, entitled “Why Israel Should Vote for Palestinian Independence,” Zionist Union opposition leader Isaac Herzog argued that Israel should accept a new UN resolution on Palestinian statehood, but with strong Israeli input on conditions and parameters for negotiations.
However, Herzog today, focused on convincing Israeli voters of his right-tending security credentials, is unlikely to repeat a call of this kind. That means Netanyahu will probably be spared strong domestic pressure to go along with the European initiative.
The overarching question though is whether the international community, especially the United States, will allow Netanyahu to maintain his conflict managing policies.
Hard on the heels of the prime minister’s rejection of the two-state formula in the March election run-up, US President Barack Obama warned that there would be “foreign policy consequences” without spelling out what they might be.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest was more forthcoming: The understanding that Israel was committed to a two-state solution was a “bedrock” of US policy, he explained, adding that if Israel “walked back” that policy, the US would find it more difficult to shield it from attack in international forums. The implication was that if a resolution on Palestinian statehood in the context of a two-state solution was presented to the UN Security Council, Israel would not be able to count on an automatic American veto, as it had done in the past.
Earnest pointed out that in the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act passed by Congress in December 2014, “pursuit of a twostate solution was identified as our goal to solve this conflict.” And if Israel was no longer on board, the US, he said, would have to reassess its diplomacy for solving the Israeli- Palestinian problem.
Come this year’s UN General Assembly meeting in September, there could be a reversal of traditional great power roles, with the Europeans in the mediator’s seat and the US providing the carrot and stick. How long it lasts will depend on how effective it proves.