France has jolted the Middle East peace process with its announcement this weekend that it will organize an international conference by this summer to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution and will recognize a Palestinian state if the conference fails.
This is uncharted diplomatic territory. The relative isolation of the Israelis and the disunity and marginalization of the Palestinians clearly rule out any serious bilateral diplomacy. The French move simultaneously challenges and tests all critical dimensions of the conflict: the positions of the Israelis and Palestinians; the failed role of the United States as mediator; the potential for a larger role by European, Arab and Asian powers; and the ability of the United Nations to regain its relevance.
This effort could succeed if it turns out that France is acting in quiet consultation with the U.S. and its European partners, which are frustrated with Israeli policies. Or it could be just one more case of the West tackling the conflict with empty diplomatic flourishes rather than substantive actions that move both sides toward a permanent peace agreement. Nevertheless, the specific, forceful French initiative demands attention for several reasons.
First, it breaks Washington’s long, futile, probably unserious monopoly on mediation. Any serious initiative by a world power besides the U.S. should be welcomed if it offers a more evenhanded approach that is anchored in international law and that takes into account the key needs and rights of both sides rather than continue Washington’s clear pro-Israel tilt.
Second, France is well placed to earn the trust of Israelis and Palestinians because of its proven concern for both sides in recent years. It can credibly claim to be evenhanded. Its sometimes disruptive interjections in last year’s multilateral negotiations with Iran mainly sought to assuage Israeli concerns, which earned it important trust among many Israelis. Paris has long supported both sides in various ways, from providing early nuclear technology and arms to the nascent Israeli state to speaking out forcefully for Palestinian self-determination decades ago. France’s ability to be genuinely impartial means it can support core goals of both sides while trying to achieve them through an international negotiation. Perhaps this French legacy of trying to be evenhanded is why Israel and the U.S. quickly spoke out against this initiative, since they seem to prefer the U.S.-mediated peace process, which tilts towards Israel and therefore has moved nowhere for the past 22 years.
Third, the drive to convene an international conference means the attempt to resolve this conflict would not reflect military advantages on the ground that favor Israel but would be anchored in international law, rights conventions and U.N. resolutions that treat both parties equally. The Palestinians have been aiming for such a shift for years, while the Israelis and Americans have resisted it.
The intriguing backstory to this is that Washington seemed to hint last summer that it could consider turning to an international forum if its mediation failed. Most likely, this was intended only as a means to pressure Israel or express President Barack Obama’s frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued expansion of settlements, which most of the world sees as illegal and a major obstacle to fruitful negotiations. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this week criticized Israeli settlements as illegal and a deterrent to peace talks, and the Obama administration previously and unsuccessfully tried to get a meaningful settlement freeze in order to kick-start serious diplomacy. It is possible that France’s call for an international conference signals much wider support for such a move, which could now come into the open.
Fourth, France’s declaration that it would recognize the Palestinian state if the conference fails is an important gesture that makes clear the consequences of Israeli intransigence. This angers Israel but does little to provide Palestinians with tangible gains. Recognition is a moral victory, not a measurable advance in the day-to-day well-being of ordinary Palestinians.
Sweden recognized Palestinian statehood last year, and other European nations have made similar moves, such as raising the status of their diplomatic representation with Palestine and increasing sanctions on European institutions or firms that do business with settlement-based Israeli organizations. The explicit French commitment to recognize a Palestinian state is a novel way to pressure Israel to be more reasonable. France does this knowing that such a move would spark recognition of Palestine by many other countries in Europe and elsewhere.
Finally, the French move is important because it could craft an international forum in which both sides would be supported by their American, European Arab and other backers. If neither side feels isolated or disadvantaged, perhaps this could spawn the serious negotiating mechanism that finally leads to a two-state solution.
When the French government reiterated this week that it seeks a two-state solution that “fulfills the national aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians,” it also restated these key parameters of a fair two-state solution that Paris and the European Union have approved: borders based on the 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps, security arrangements preserving the sovereignty of the Palestinian state and ensuring the security of Israel, a just and agreed-on solution to the refugee problem and an arrangement making Jerusalem the capital of both states.
Paris’ “call for a change in the negotiation method” from U.S.-managed bilateral talks envisages an increased role for the U.N. Security Council, which would endorse parameters like those above, including a time limit for negotiations.
Never has a European power taken such a dramatic, explicit and action-oriented initiative to counter U.S. control of the peace process. A fair and lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be the single most useful contribution to rolling back the extremism and disintegration that now threaten much of the Middle East.