Does Israeli-Palestinian peace pass through Paris?
The protagonists, however, were not invited to parley in Paris. In a Middle East wracked by turmoil since the “Arab Spring” of 2011, is this a likely pathway to peace, or was it just amassing air miles for ministers?
French President Francois Hollande said in his opening statement: “Violence is growing and hope is fading – that’s why we want to try and revive the peace process.”
“Only the sides can make peace, but we have to help them,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said. “It is important to create conditions to bolster trust and renew negotiations.”
Attendees included UN Secretary-General Ban ki Moon, US Secretary of State John Kerry, EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini, South African Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and representatives from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Britain, Germany, Japan and Russia did not send their foreign ministers though, perhaps suggesting scepticism about any breakthroughs.
The terse joint communiqué issued is fairly parev. It reaffirms support for “a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” based on “a negotiated two-state solution”, which it says is “dangerously imperil[led]” by “continued acts of violence and ongoing settlement activity”.
It reiterates the UN resolutions that map out a peace path as well as support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (where Arab states offered recognition of Israel if a Palestinian state was created in the West Bank and Gaza).
It mentions the prospect of a high-level summit, including the Israelis and Palestinians, later in the year, but the communiqué falls short of Paris’ hopes that it would mention a firm timetable or working groups to resolve tough issues like settlements, Jerusalem and refugees.
According to Israeli English news sites, it was considerably watered down by the Americans, and months of Israeli lobbying.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu firmly rejected the initiative. In the run-up he said: “The way to peace does not go through international conferences that seek to impose agreements, make the Palestinians’ demands more extreme and thereby make peace more remote.”
He sees no alternative to direct talks without preconditions, which brought peace with Egypt and Jordan.
Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry Dore Gold, likened the Paris meeting to the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, in which Britain and France carved up the Middle East that would emerge from the Ottoman Empire’s collapse after the First World War and said any imposed solution would fail.
Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk said: “We wonder if Paris wasn’t just a waste of everyone’s time… The statement that came out – that everyone flew to Paris for three hours for – did not move anything forward… we got what we already had – calls for a two-state solution, ending violence and restarting negotiations.
“We know the solution from South Africa: let neighbours talk to neighbours. But the Palestinians are avoiding direct talks.”
Lenk says he has encouraged Pretoria to urge their Palestinian contacts to make hard concessions for peace. “It’s not meetings in Paris or the UN – it’s through a Codesa that we make peace,” he said, referring to the multi-party negotiations in the early 1990s by South Africans themselves that led to a political settlement.
The PLO welcomed the meeting, and would love France to usurp the US as Middle East mediator, seeing the latter as too pro-Israel. Predictably, Hamas and other extremist Palestinian groups strongly rejected any attempts at reviving what they called “futile negotiations”.
Professor of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State, Hussein Solomon, does not believe this conflict is ripe for resolution.
“The Palestinians are too divided to have a common position vis-à-vis Israel, and with the inclusion of some far-right parties in Netanyahu’s Cabinet, meaningful concessions are not likely.”
He adds that the Palestinian position is further weakened by “the Sunni-Shia tensions and the Saudi-Iranian support the different factions have”, as well as by the focus in the region on the Islamic State.
While mustering international and regional support for peace is critical, it will remain elusive until the key players are prepared to sit down for earnest and sincere negotiations.