France Calls for Middle East Peace Conference

American support for a French Middle East conference may dissuade the Palestinians from seeking recognition of statehood at the UN.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Paris, France, June 14, 2010
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Paris, France, June 14, 2010 (Olivier Pacteau)

At a time when a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ever deeper into the abyss, the French government, under the direction of Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, has taken the initiative by announcing a plan to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together for a last ditch negotiating effort. While the date of the conference has not yet been released, Mr Juppé stated that the mediation efforts would be conducted sometime this summer.

The French announcement comes as something of a surprise, given the polarizing atmosphere surrounding the dispute, which only widened with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to endorse President Barack Obama’s Middle East peace plan. That plan called for a near full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian territory, with mutually agreed upon land swaps to account for large Israeli settlement communities near the pre-1967 borders.

Obama’s position, which is both pragmatic and foresees a fair solution to the conflict, has been American policy for the past two decades. Netanyahu, however, rejected the principles of his proposal last month in front of the United States Congress, which gave him multiple standing ovations for his toughness. The Obama Administration, whose last attempt to forge a successful peace accord broke down after a measly three weeks last September, has essentially run out of options. And with Obama’s reelection bid to kick off next year, it is almost a given that the White House will avoid pressuring the Israelis to make any more concessions.

This is precisely why the French proposal should be looked upon in a favorable light. With the parties wedded to their old positions, the United States Congress firmly behind Netanyahu and Palestinians still under military occupation, there are simply no more alternatives left. The French may not solve all of the grievances and will certainly fail to convince the Israelis to share Jerusalem after a few short meetings, but momentum could shift if the Israeli and Palestinian delegations can agree on issues of convenience. Intelligence sharing, joint police work on mutual threats and the tightening of economic bonds are all examples of issues that can forge goodwill on both sides.

There is word that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already accepted the provisions of the conference. The Palestinian Authority’s quick response to the French could be read as a negotiating tactic — the onus is now on the Israelis to participate. If Netanyahu responds in the negative, the Palestinians will have gained the excuse they need to go to the United Nations and press their case for self-determination at the General Assembly later this year. Palestinian acceptance of direct negotiations in Paris is also an abrupt, and welcomed, shift from Abbas’ previous demand that Israel first stop building settlements before negotiations can resume.

The United States have thus far been skeptical of France’s motives. As the leading go-between in the conflict for the past two decades, Washington is understandably embarrassed that another country, even an ally, would step on its toes and steal the limelight. Yet American mediation has hardly been successful. In fact, American participation has been so thoroughly compromised by its unconditional support of Israel that other stakeholders in the dispute, including Hamas, the Palestinian people and other Arab states, have lost hope that Washington can exert enough pressure to get an interim deal through. American credibility was further diminished when Israel ignored Obama’s insistence that settlement growth stop.

France’s initiative may be Washington’s, if not the world’s, last opportunity to stop the Palestinians’ UN recognition campaign — a campaign that, when fully tallied, will only remind Israel and the United States that they are in the minority.