The French Peace Initiative

May 27, 2016

The French Peace Initiative

Update from AIJAC

May 27, 2016

Update 05/16 #6

Next week, the French government plans to convene a meeting of international foreign ministers  – not including Israeli and Palestinian representatives –  to discuss ideas for advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. They hope to follow this up with an international conference later in the year that would include Israelis and Palestinians. 

Despite visits to Israel by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Prime Minister Manuel Valls over recent weeks, Israel has made it clear it is not happy with this initiative, viewing it as providing “a new escape route for [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas to avoid direct talks with Israel” in the words of Israeli PM Netanyahu. Netanyahu proposed to Valls that France instead host a direct meeting of the Israeli PM with his Palestinian counterpart.

First up, making the case that Israel correctly views the French initiative as a bad idea is American columnist Jonathan Tobin. Tobin notes that the Palestinians are welcoming it because – having walked away from US sponsored talks two years ago and refused all direct negotiation ever since – it fits in with their strategy of seeking an imposed Israeli territorial retreat without a peace agreement. Moreover, it misunderstands the real causes of the current impasse and ignores what has happened over the last 23 years where Israel repeatedly offered the sort of peace agreement that the international community had long urged and the Palestinians have rejected it. Tobin asserts that the initiative might actually make things worse, and to read his full argument why, CLICK HERE

Next up is Israeli columnist Ben Dror Yemini, who argues that not only is the French initiative doomed to failure, it is actually developed out of a completely one-sided threat – an ultimatum that Israel grant Palestinian demands without peace, asking nothing of the Palestinians, or else France would recognise “Palestine”. This is worsened by French support recently for a UNESCO resolution that rejected any connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem. Nonetheless, Yemini argues Israel would be wise to put forward its own peace initiative – arguing Israel prospers when it says yes to peace, even if peace does not eventuate. For the rest of what he has to say, CLICK HERE

Finally, this Update features a suggestion for a different way forward to advance peace – written by former senior US official John Hannah. Hannah argues that there is currently an enormous opportunity for the US to play a major role in trying to build on the budding strategic rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Arab states – and this is more likely to build the preconditions for peace than another initiative like the French attempt to convene an international conference or talk of a new US Administration proposal to set out the parameters for peace. Hannah suggests a number of reasons why he thinks the outgoing Obama Administration will not take the steps he urges, but suggests the next Administration might. For all the details of what he envisions, CLICK HERE

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Article 1

The French Will Make Things Worse

Jonathan S. Tobin  

Commentary “Contentions”, May 13, 2016

French US Secretary of State John Kerry with his French counter-part Jean-Marc Ayrault / AP Photo/  

With the Middle East peace process lying dead in the water for two years, what harm could come from an effort led by France to revive talks between Israel and the Palestinians? The answer is that, whenever one thinks things can’t get worse, the reality of this conflict is always there to remind us that yes, things can always get worse. Moreover, they almost always do when even the best-intended people try to pretend that another conference or paper or the right negotiator can solve a problem that has nothing to do with forums, resolutions or even skillful diplomacy.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will arrive in Israel this weekend to try to lay the groundwork for a new peace initiative. But Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu deserves no blame for rejecting the French formula. It’s not just that Paris’s plan smacks of international coercion that is both deeply unfair to Israel. Nor is the biggest problem here the fact that similar schemes with analogous formulas have already been tried and failed.

The real problem is that the French, like the Americans, the United Nations and the “Diplomatic Quartet” that have trod this path before, are focusing on form rather than confronting substance. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians will come the day the latter gives up their century-old war on Zionism and put to rest their opposition to a Jewish state.

If the goal is to get closer to that moment, the French plan is an absurd waste of time. Indeed, the fact that the Palestinians have welcomed the scheme illustrates what’s wrong with it. Having torpedoed the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry two years ago and refusing every entreaty to return to the table since then, it’s hardly surprising that the Palestinians would like a plan that starts with an international conclave convened by the French to where neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will be present.

That sort of diplomacy smacks of an international diktat where nations that are either neutral or hostile to Israel will seek to impose terms on it that compromise both its security and rights. Instead of a negotiation in which the two sides will be forced to recognize each other’s legitimacy, such a process is a one-sided attempt merely to orchestrate another Israeli territorial retreat in which it will be asked to trade land for the hope of peace. Moreover, is there any reason for Israel to trust nations that, like France, voted for a recent UNESCO resolution that didn’t even recognize historic Jewish ties to holy sites in Jerusalem such as the Western Wall or the Temple Mount?

But even if we lay aside the obvious unsuitability of any plan that is so skewed against the Israelis even before it begins, Netanyahu’s rejection makes sense because the premise of the negotiation is false. The French and the international community that appears to be supporting their initiative act as if the last 23 years of history hadn’t happened. Must we remind them that Israel has already placed on the table the same terms that peace process advocates always speak of being the solution that “everyone knows” will be the way to end the conflict? Is it really necessary to point out that the Palestinians said no to those terms — independence and a state that includes almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem — in 2000, 2001, and 2008? Must we point out that since the last of those offers that sent Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas fleeing from the negotiating table, he has refused to negotiate seriously even when Netanyahu offered in the Kerry talks to leave the West Bank?

Obviously, the answer is yes to all three questions.

But even if anyone thought Abbas would give a different answer to peace than he has previously provided, no one in Paris or in any of the other foreign capitals where this proposal is being discussed is anyone taking into account the fact that Abbas doesn’t speak for all of the Palestinians. Two million of them live in Gaza from which Israel withdrew every soldier, settler and settlement in 2005, and which is now ruled as an independent Palestinian state in all but name by Hamas terrorists. How can even a theoretical deal that grants sovereignty to the PA make any sense so long as Hamas is in place in Gaza and might well expand their rule to the West Bank once Israel does the international community’s bidding?

The answer is that it doesn’t. The only answer that would make sense would be for Abbas to accept Netanyahu’s oft-stated offer of a resumption of direct negotiations that he repeated this week while, again, accepting the idea of two states for two peoples. But that can’t happen so long as Abbas refuses to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its boundaries would be drawn. And he won’t do that because Palestinian public opinion is unalterably opposed to such a formulation. Until a sea change in their political culture permits him or a successor to end the century-long war on Zionism and the Jewish presence in any part of the country that is inextricably tied to Palestinian national identity.

The French, President Obama and Netanyahu all ought to know that if the Palestinians were ever to accept peace on terms that end the conflict for all time, there is no Israeli leader that could successfully resist such a peace plan. The majority of Israelis would give up settlements and even perhaps some of their capital for peace. Building in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs that Israel would keep in the event of peace is no obstacle to a deal. Yet instead of dealing with Palestinian intransigence, the French, like President Obama, focus on their antagonism with Netanyahu.

That is problematic not just because it achieves nothing to get the region closer to peace. It’s foolish because it only encourages the Palestinians to think they won’t have to make the concessions they need to make if they really want two states instead of merely eliminating Israel. Every failed peace effort has led to a new round of violence, and this one won’t be an exception. It’s time for diplomats to realize that, like doctors, their primary responsibility is to do no harm. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that no one tempted by the glory of making the ultimate deal (attention: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) ought to forget.

Article 2

The French peace initiative is doomed to fail

Ben-Dror Yemini

Op-ed: History has taught us that any peace proposal that doesn’t include the right of return is rejected out of hand by the Palestinians. This proposal will be rejected as well. But for as long as Israel has been saying ‘yes’ to peace initiatives, it has prospered, while the insistent Arab refusal has only led the Palestinians astray.

Ynet.com, May 16, 2016

The French peace initiative was born in sin. It did not begin as an initiative, it began as a threat: If Israel doesn’t accept the diktat to recognize a Palestinian state, without negotiations and without the Palestinians having to recognize Israel, France will support Palestinian demands. The initiative includes demands made of Israel, like halting settlement construction beyond the Green Line—both in the Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem and in the main settlement blocs that will undoubtedly stay part of Israel in any future accord. But there are no demands made of the Palestinians—not on the “right of return,” not on stopping incitement, nothing. This isn’t serious.

The Israeli anger—which is entirely justified—led to a certain change in tone. The French are no longer promising the Palestinians that they would recognize a Palestinian state if the talks fail, and they’ve ambiguously dropped their other preconditions. The Israeli anger increased following the French support of the Arab resolution passed by UNESCO, which in practice rejects any connection between Israel and Jerusalem. When something like this is coming out of Tehran, we can mock it. But not so, when it’s coming out of Paris?

Ayrault and Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Photo: Kobi Gidon/GPO

Ayrault and Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Photo: Kobi Gidon/GPO

The French realize they’ve made a mistake. They condemned their own vote in favor of the resolution. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault visited Israel on Sunday. Next week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls—a serious and brave man—will visit Israel as well. They’re trying to convince Israel to get on board with their peace initiative.

All peace initiatives so far have failed. Even the dream team of Yossi Beilin, Shlomo Ben-Ami and the late Yossi Sarid couldn’t deliver the goods. The Palestinians, again and again, have insisted on the right of return. Not a partial right or return or a symbolic one—a mass one. Not that Netanyahu would’ve agreed to what Beilin proposed, but Abbas said “no” to Beilin.

Experience proves that it doesn’t matter what the Palestinians are offered, it doesn’t matter what the initiative entails. It’s clear, even before the fact, that Abbas will say no. Even the French, despite Israel’s anger at them, won’t offer the Palestinians the right of return, and any proposal that does not include the right of return will receive the already-known answer. So, despite the pro-Palestinian bias, the result is known in advance.

And yet, despite the fact that this is a terrible initiative, Israel’s negative reaction to it is inherently flawed. Because for as long as the Arab side has been saying “no,” it has been sinking; and as long as the Israeli side has been saying “yes,” it has been rising. This has been true in the 1937 Peel Commission proposal, the 1947 UN partition plan, the 1967 Khartoum Resolution following the Six-Day War, the Clinton Parameters in late 2000, Olmert’s offer in 2008, and the two drafts written by John Kerry in 2014. Abbas’s “no” to the two drafts stood starkly compared to the hesitant, partial “yes” from Netanyahu, at least to the first draft.

The only plan the Palestinians support is the Saudi peace initiative, which became the Arab proposal. There are arguments over the details of the plan. But what’s clear is that while good-willed Israeli commentators see the proposal as giving up on the right of return, the Arab interpretation, and certainly the Palestinian one, is the complete opposite of that. Israel should say “yes” to this proposal as well, while clarifying, for example, that UN Resolution 194, which is mentioned in the Arab proposal, is talking about the original refugees of 1948, and not their descendents. And in general, that in all of the transfers and population exchanges of the 1940s, refugees did not have a “right of return.”

The French resolution will fail, and it’s a shame if it fails because of Israel. That would only aid the Palestinian campaign against Israel. And in any case, the French initiative came to be because of the freeze in talks. Instead of a French initiative, we should’ve had an Israeli initiative—both regarding the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It’s not that the Palestinians would’ve said “yes,” but an Israeli initiative would have at least continued the tradition in which Israel says “yes” and prospers. This is a tradition worth keeping, as it has proven itself. 

Article 3

For Middle East Peace, Look to Israel’s Arab Partners

By John Hannah
Foreign Policy, May 16, 2016 – 11:59 am
  For Middle East Peace, Look to Israel’s Arab Partners

Speculation is rife that President Barack Obama will make one final stab at putting his mark on the Middle East peace process before he leaves office. One theory has the administration supporting a United Nations Security Council resolution that would codify terms for a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Another has Obama going it alone, delivering a high-profile speech setting out “Obama parameters” for a two-state solution.

But if Obama has anything more in mind than adding another shiny exhibit to his presidential library, he’d be wise to forego either option. Neither stands much chance of actually advancing the cause of regional peace and stability. On the contrary, they’re more likely to set it back. Instead, the president would be better advised to apply the powers of his office to a slightly more promising — albeit less headline-grabbing — effort, where his engagement might really have strategic impact. I’m talking about facilitating the burgeoning relations between Israel and America’s most important Arab friends.

It’s virtually impossible to imagine Israel and the Palestinians conducting fruitful negotiations under the current circumstances. Mistrust is at an all-time high. Gaps on the core issues are wide. Talks have been in deep freeze for over two years. For months on end, young Palestinians have targeted innocent Israelis in a wave of random stabbings. The Palestinian leadership, in particular, seems weaker, more divided, and more paralyzed than ever, utterly incapable of taking on the gut-wrenching compromises that even the most generous peace offer would require. Secretary of State John Kerry devoted his first year at Foggy Bottom to a dubious, but nevertheless Herculean effort to force-feed a deal to the parties, and failed miserably. There’s no reason whatsoever to believe that the chances for success would be any better today.

Even Obama has acknowledged that renewed negotiations, much less a peace agreement, aren’t in the cards before he leaves office. So why even toy with the idea of a big initiative that would have him — or worse yet, the U.N. — dictating terms of a settlement from on high? Advocates suggest that Obama’s purpose would be to leave his successor with the issue on a more promising or hopeful trajectory than the current unsatisfying deadlock. But given Israel’s historical objection to any outside effort to impose a solution, the more likely result is that the next president would inherit a relationship even worse than what we have today with our best Middle East ally. As for the Palestinians, if outside intervention to impose a deal rewards their refusal to negotiate, what incentive would they have to return to the table, rather than merely sit back and wait for even greater international pressure to be brought on Israel? What exactly would be more positive or hopeful about any of that from a U.S. perspective?

Truth be told, the more likely impetus for any last-minute grand gesture by the president on the peace process seems more personal than strategic in nature. Within days of taking office, Obama signaled that a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was among his highest priorities, the deus ex machina that would right everything wrong about America’s relations with the Muslim world. Yet for more than seven years, his lofty ambitions on this front have been frustrated at every turn — as often as not, in Obama’s eyes, by the failure of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appreciate the deep wisdom of the White House’s transformative agenda for the Middle East.

The president’s credibility on Israel-Palestine is in tatters. A high-profile declaration as he prepares to leave office would offer Obama at least the possibility that his legacy on the issue could be something other than a dreary litany of failure and futility. Better his sentence in the history books read “the Obama Parameters for Peace,” than some version of “all hat, no cattle.” And if in the process he can stick it to Netanyahu and defy the Washington foreign policy establishment (aka, the Blob) one last time, well, so much the better. Mic drop moment. Obama out.

If the president is ultimately deterred from his peace process temptation, it will likely have more to do with politics than any rigorous assessment of American national interests and priorities in the Middle East. Specifically, he’s no doubt loathe to do anything that might complicate Hillary Clinton’s bid to succeed him as president in what history would no doubt regard as Obama’s third term. Picking a fight with Israel in the run-up to November’s elections would almost certainly fall into that category. After the elections, a different calculation might prevail. But the convention against a lame-duck president launching major policy departures after his successor has been chosen, perhaps joined with a new president-elect’s objection to being saddled with the fallout from Obama’s Palestinian vanity project, might still stay the administration’s hand.

Or so one can hope. If it does, Obama might more productively direct his energies during his waning months in office to the slightly more auspicious diplomatic ground of Israel’s thickening links with a handful of key Arab states. While the fact of such contacts is nothing new, there’s now a palpable sense that both the frequency and quality of the interactions, mostly conducted in private, have intensified considerably over the past few years.

The reason for this, of course, is the growing convergence in regional threat perceptions. Both Israel and U.S.-aligned Sunni Arab states now share the view that the rising power of Iran and radical Islamism pose a far greater danger to their mutual security and well-being than the chronic inability to resolve the Palestinian question, now well into its seventh decade. This sense of common interests and priorities has resulted in expanding political, economic, and intelligence ties, including a relatively robust trade in Israeli security technology.

Most of the interactions remain covert, but there’s also been a slow but steady series of important public milestones: increasingly routine meetings between former high-level security officials from Saudi Arabia and Israel (see here, here, here, and here); the establishment by Israel of an official office at a United Arab Emirates-based international agency; and Saudi Arabia’s acknowledgement that it will honor key security provisions of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty as part of a recent deal, by which Cairo returned two islands in the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi control. Meanwhile, military and intelligence cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states with which Israel already has diplomatic relations, are allegedly better than ever.

The degree of progress shouldn’t be exaggerated. Nor should it be dismissed. Serious conversations are occurring. Business is getting done. That represents major positive change. The question now is whether this dynamism can somehow be converted into a historic inflection point for the region. Can backdoor channels for exchanging views become the basis for discreet but concrete cooperation to better address some of the most pressing threats and challenges facing both Israel and the Sunni Arab states — Iran first and foremost? Can the remarkable alignment of threat perceptions be operationalized into a de facto coalition of the willing, which would allow the parties to combine their considerable resources and capabilities behind a common strategy to more effectively counter, deter, and defeat their shared enemies, and enhance regional stability?

For example: Israel is routinely attacking Hezbollah targets in Syria. For their part, the Gulf states have recently designated Hezbollah as a terrorist group. They’re also supporting rebel groups in Syria that have been fighting Hezbollah’s forces on the ground. The obvious question is whether the countries in question might be able to synchronize their efforts, to create greater synergies and achieve even larger strategic effects that would weaken and undermine Iran’s most important regional proxy.

Missile defense is another obvious agenda item for security cooperation. The Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has exposed the fact that the coalition suffers from significant vulnerabilities to short-range missile and rocket attacks. That, of course, is precisely the threat that Israel’s Iron Dome system has addressed so effectively. The logic of a major Gulf investment in Israeli missile defense technology, including work on next-generation systems like directed energy weapons, is not hard to understand. A similar logic applies in other areas, like cyber warfare, border security, and critical infrastructure protection.

The United States should have a profound interest in testing how far the budding strategic rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Arab states can go. Given its role as the most important, powerful, and trusted outside partner on both sides, there’s no doubt much the United States could serve as a catalyst, organizer, and patron of this emerging coalition — mediating, prodding, strategizing, and providing reassurances, guarantees, and resources. Although the current contacts between Israel and some of its neighbors is heartening, that contact won’t reach its full potential absent active U.S. assistance and protection. The historical antagonisms, suspicions, and risks — especially for a religiously conservative monarchy like Saudi Arabia, the self-styled epicenter of worldwide Islam — may simply be too great for the parties to overcome on their own.

Unfortunately, there’s little sign to date that the Obama administration has much interest in playing such a role. Israeli officials complain that the United States remains far too focused on the Palestinian issue, while missing entirely the historic opportunity to advance relations between Israel and the Arab states.

One also has to wonder how much of the administration’s reluctance can be explained by its Iran obsession. As a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, allegedly Obama’s closest national security aide, laid bare, achieving some kind of rapprochement, or modus vivendi, with the Islamic Republic has been absolutely central to the president’s overriding strategic purpose “of large-scale disentanglement from the Middle East.” The administration could well view its potential role in a security partnership between Israel and the Sunni Arabs, who would prioritizing the confrontation of Iranian aggression, as too great a risk to the White House’s master plan for retrenchment.

It also has to be said that Obama, in his recent Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, along with Rhodes, have made clear the president’s underlying contempt for both Israel and America’s Arab partners, especially Saudi Arabia. He seems to view them all as too difficult, ungrateful, and unreliable. It’s not hard to imagine him taking a pass on an initiative that might require him to invest considerable time and energy in fostering improved relations between parties that he holds in such disdain. As the Rhodes profile revealed, Obama’s underlying mission is to disentangle America from these burdensome relationships, not dig it in deeper.

Whatever the causes of Obama’s failure to seize on the important shifts in Israel’s relations with the Arab states, it certainly represents a lost opportunity that the next administration should take up. Ironically, in addition to the significant security benefits that could flow from such cooperation, there’s also at least the possibility that it might eventually pay off in the Palestinian arena as well. Under the strategic umbrella of strengthening ties between Israel and the most powerful Arab states, both Palestinians and Israelis might gain greater incentives and confidence in their abilities to take the necessary risks for peace. Just imagine for a moment the reverberations of an Arab delegation, led by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, arriving in Israel on a mission to speak directly to the Israeli people about their long-dormant Arab peace initiative. Unlikely? Perhaps. Impossible? No longer — especially with robust American backing. After decades of stalemate, failure, and lost hope, that kind of strategic shakeup in the region’s landscape might be just what is needed to break the unbreakable Palestinian logjam. That’s the real peace process play that America should be pursuing.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy.




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