Peace train building up steam

US may join the desperate international attempt to keep the two-state solution alive.

US Vice President Joe Biden meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 8, 2016 (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
US Vice President Joe Biden meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 8, 2016
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
TWO YEARS after the collapse of its last major effort to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, the outgoing US administration is signaling readiness for one last peacemaking foray.
This is partly a question of the Obama legacy: Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has been deeply invested in facilitating a two-state solution. But so far he has nothing to show for it. US officials say he wants to go out having at least laid down parameters for a future peace and perhaps even creating a new peacemaking dynamic for his successor in the White House to pick up on.
Obama is skeptical about the chances for a breakthrough before his term ends. He believes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds the key, but that he is too weak and politically beholden to the ideological right to make any significant moves.
The prospective American effort is therefore part of a desperate international attempt to keep the two-state solution alive. The administration’s view is that the current slide toward a one-state outcome is disastrous not only for Israel and the Palestinians, but also inimical to America’s wider regional interests.
This is a view shared by many in the international community, where France has taken the lead with an initiative designed to create a system of carrots and sticks to induce the parties to reengage in peace talks based on the two-state model. The plan is to convene a conference of foreign ministers from over 20 relevant countries (but without the Israelis or the Palestinians) in Paris, in late May, to work on terms of reference for renewed peace talks, set up a monitoring committee to help or pressure the parties to keep moving forward if and when negotiations restart and, as far as the Europeans are concerned, to offer an exceptionally attractive economic package if the talks succeed.
To tie up the loose ends and launch the talks, the May conference will be followed by a second international parley in the summer, this time including the Israelis and the Palestinians.
For the French initiative to have any chance of success, active American participation is essential. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and his special envoy for the peace project Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to Washington, recognize this and have been working hard to bring the Americans in. Obama’s dilemma is whether to sit tight because of the low probability of success, to make one last legacy bid on his own or to join the wider international effort.
If he decides to make a move, the intense diplomatic bustle is likely to coalesce into unprecedented international pressure on Israel – especially in light of the fact that next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The American resolve to keep pushing for peace despite profound exasperation with the parties, especially Israel, was evident in speeches by senior administration officials at J Street’s annual gala in Washington in mid-April. “We have an overwhelming obligation, notwithstanding our sometimes overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government, to push them as hard as we can toward what they know in their gut is the only ultimate solution, a two-state solution, while at the same time to be an absolute guarantor of their security,” US Vice President Joe Biden declared.
The harsh tone of Biden’s criticism of Israel was rare for so senior an American official.
“I firmly believe that the actions that Israel’s government has taken over the past several years – the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures – they’re moving us, and more importantly, they’re moving Israel in the wrong direction,” he charged, implying that American pressure on Israel to change course could follow.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who led the previous failed American mediation attempt, confirmed that the administration intended to use the time it had left to keep pushing for a two state deal without which, he said, Israel would not be “Jewish or democratic.”
“For the next nine months we will not stop working to find a solution,” he vowed.
If the Americans decide to go on their own, Obama may put out a presidential statement on updated parameters for a peace deal, much the way Bill Clinton did in December 2000. If so, these will probably be based on Kerry’s January 2014 proposals for agreed terms of reference, just three months before his peace effort collapsed.
They included, inter alia, borders based on the 1967 lines with “mutual, agreed land swaps”; a security package for Israel; Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine (Netanyahu recognized only “Palestinian aspirations” for a capital in the city and did not accept the Clinton formula of Jewish neighborhoods to Israel, Arab neighborhoods to Palestine); Palestinian refugees to Palestine, with a few to Israel on humanitarian (family reunion) grounds at Israel’s sole discretion; monetary compensation for the vast majority of Palestinian refugees and for Jews expelled from Arab countries; and Israel recognized as the nation state of the Jewish people.
To give these parameters more international weight, Obama may prefer to act in concert with others – for example the Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia), or even through a UN Security Council Resolution, together with France and others, should the French initiative fail.
France has been trying to fill the vacuum created by America’s backing away from peacemaking ever since the collapse of the Kerry mission in April 2014. By December that year it was ready to submit a UN Security Council Resolution stipulating a time frame for negotiations and a target date for Palestinian statehood. The effort was suspended when the US refused to go along and the Palestinians insisted on a draft calling for agreement on Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank within two years.
The French government resumed its efforts in 2015, working on a new, more detailed Security Council Resolution specifying parameters for peace talks and a target date for their conclusion. This time they backed down when the Americans made it clear that they were against renewing Israel-Palestine talks until the nuclear deal with Iran, which by then was close to conclusion, was done and dusted.
In February, seven months after the signing of the Iran deal, the French revived their initiative. At the same time, the international Quartet gave it a tailwind when they declared that the status quo was not sustainable.
Over the past few months, Ayrault and Vimont have held extensive consultations with all the relevant parties, including the US, Russia, the EU countries and the Arab League states, as well as Israel and the Palestinians.
Ayrault was due in Jerusalem and Ramallah in late April for another round with the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships ahead of the foreign ministers’ planning conference in late May.
The French goal is to emerge with parameters for a negotiated settlement under a wider international umbrella than the US was able to provide. In the monitoring committee there would also be a mechanism for keeping the parties on track. In addition, the EU would renew its December 2013 promise of “special privileged” political, economic, scientific and cultural partnership with both Israel and Palestine, including unprecedented access to EU markets for non-EU countries, if the talks succeed.
Israel will also be offered American and EU security guarantees – “real guarantees, not just declarations,” according to Ayrault.
The French will also try to get the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative on the table, whereby an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would entail peace and normal relations between Israel and the entire Arab-Muslim world.
Should Israel refuse to go along, the next step could be a UN Security Council Resolution specifying parameters for a two-state solution, which the US would not veto. Indeed, the Americans may choose to have considerable say in the drafting, leaving Israel isolated against virtually the entire international community.
For their part, the Palestinians are enthusiastic about the French initiative. It plays into their strategy of achieving statehood through wide international pressure on Israel. Indeed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to suspend a Palestinian draft UN resolution against Israel’s ongoing settlement activity in the West Bank, because the French argue that it interferes with what they are trying to do. French diplomats told their Palestinian counterparts that their draft would almost certainly be vetoed and do more harm than good.
The Palestinian draft focuses on what it calls the illegality of Israel’s settlement activity, condemns all acts of terror, calls on both sides to stop incitement, reiterates Palestinian commitment to the two-state vision and calls for an occupation-ending agreement within a year and for acceptance of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Although strongly condemnatory of Israel’s settlement policy, the language and substance of the draft are relatively moderate and conciliatory.
Indeed, in his bid to drum up international pressure on Israel, one of Abbas’s chief tactics is to try to appear as the more reasonable peace partner. He recently reiterated his support for the two-state solution, his desire to talk peace with the Israelis, his readiness to meet Netanyahu anywhere and cooperate on peacemaking. He also came out against terror and confirmed the high level of Palestinian security cooperation with Israel.
To bolster the moderate image, he has been traveling extensively meeting world leaders and repeating the same message.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, is highly suspicious of the French initiative. He sees the potential threat of the international community ganging up on Israel if he is seen to be the recalcitrant party, or of his hard-line coalition falling apart, if he moves too far along the peacemaking road.
His awareness of the impending diplomatic tsunami was one of the main reasons for his recent coalition talks with the Zionist Union. By bringing the center-left party into government, he would gain a great deal of flexibility either in going along with the international community or in resisting any pressure it might choose to exert.
These talks, however, had to be suspended with the opening of an investigation against Zionist Union leader Yitzhak Herzog for alleged violations of funding rules in the Labor party leadership primary he won in November 2013. Should Herzog be cleared, however, the coalition feelers would almost certainly be renewed.
In lieu of a deal with the Zionist Union, Netanyahu’s tactic seems to be to dig in and defy the international community by moving further to the right. He has spoken out against international dictates, declared that Israel will keep the Golan Heights with the implication of a similar hardline over the West Bank, and belittled the French initiative.
“Can somebody explain to me what’s in the French initiative? So far I don’t understand and I’m not sure the French do either,” he asserted in a mid-April briefing to diplomatic correspondents in Jerusalem.
Observers and politicians on the left are advising Netanyahu to preempt international moves through a bold Israeli initiative that could take center stage, enhance Israel’s international standing and possibly even achieve a solution favorable to Israel’s long-term interests. But Netanyahu shows no inclination to do so.
As a result, a long hot summer of international pressure on Israel seems to be welling up – especially if Obama decides, one way or another, to add America’s considerable weight to the equation.