Ahead of Paris Peace Summit, Israel Is Isolated and Irrelevant Just Like During Iran Talks

Through lack of preparation and a ludicrous stance, Israel ended up completely out of the picture, as if Paris were talking about the Syrian civil war instead of about issues that affect the lives of every Israeli.

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Netanyahu shakes hands with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on May 15, 2016 during a meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu shakes hands with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on May 15, 2016 during a meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem.Credit: Reuters

PARIS – For a long time, Israel preferred to ignore the French peace initiative. When it was first announced by France’s former foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, in late January, a few weeks before he left office, nobody took it seriously. The prevailing wisdom in Jerusalem was that the initiative would be thrown onto the scrap heap of history the day Fabius left the foreign minister’s office for the last time.

But as time passed, it became clear that the French were moving full speed ahead. Slowly, they persuaded more and more countries to participate in their initiative in some fashion or another. A sizable proportion of the states participating in the conference that opens Friday morning aren’t enthusiastic about the French initiative, to say the least. But in the end, they’re all coming and they’re all cooperating.

The main reason for this is that, at least at the moment, nobody has a better idea. U.S. President Barack Obama won’t do anything significant on the Israeli-Palestinian issue before the American presidential election in November, if ever. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will attend Friday’s meeting with deep reluctance. He doesn’t like the French initiative, but neither did he try to kill it. The last thing the Americans needed was to announce that on this issue, too, they had decided to lead from behind. In this situation, the French peace initiative is the only game in town.

Above all, the French initiative reflects the international community’s despair over both the Israeli leadership and the Palestinian leadership. Instead of progressing toward a solution of their conflict, both leaderships have adopted policies that make the two-state solution impossible. The result of this despair was a move that’s liable to prove to be the end of the era of direct, bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The international community is becoming more involved in the conflict than ever before and is simply moving ahead without regard to the parties themselves, since it despises them both.

It was only this week that Jerusalem finally understood the French initiative wasn’t going to go away so quickly. Only three days ago did the Foreign Ministry set up a special diplomatic task force on the issue, and only on Thursday did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally convene his first substantive discussion of the issue. The fact that domestic political developments have dominated Netanyahu’s schedule for the last month, alongside the government’s erroneous assessment of the French initiative’s prospects, resulted in Israel failing to make the necessary diplomatic preparations.

The policy Israel adopted was to completely reject the French initiative, arguing that an international conference would sabotage the peace process or prevent direct talks with the Palestinians. Western diplomats and foreign ministers who heard this from Netanyahu and Foreign Ministry staffers didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. As if peace were going to break out any minute, if only the French didn’t get in the way. That’s also why the French had no problem simply ignoring Israel’s position and moving ahead.

The Palestinians also don’t love every detail of the French initiative, but they answered “yes, but” to it. In contrast, Israel’s reaction to the French initiative was very similar to its reaction to the nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers. 

As in the Iranian case, Israel rejected any compromise out of hand and refused to demonstrate any flexibility. As in the Iranian case, Israel isolated itself, and therefore ended up in a situation where it’s completely out of the picture and has ceased to be relevant to the international community’s decisions about its affairs. It’s as if Paris were talking about the civil war in Syria or Libya instead of about issues that affect the lives of every Israeli.

Even Thursday’s press conference by Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold sounded like a rehash of talking points from the era of the nuclear deal with Iran. Just as Netanyahu made a ridiculous comparison made between the framework deal the six powers reached with Iran in Lausanne and the 1938 Munich Agreement, Gold made a hysterical comparison between the three-hour-long meeting of foreign ministers in Paris, at which no dramatic decisions are expected, and the Sykes-Picot agreement a century ago, in which the Western powers imposed a new order on the Middle East.  It’s legitimate to oppose the French initiative, but it’s not clear how Jerusalem could spend weeks declaring it unimportant and then suddenly, overnight, start comparing it to one of the most important and dramatic diplomatic moves in the Middle East of the last 100 years.

It’s hard to predict where the French peace initiative will go and whether Friday’s meeting of foreign ministers in Paris will lead to an international peace conference by the end of the year. It’s too soon to know. But for this very reason, it’s not clear what Israel gains by once again casting itself as the naysayer. So far, Israel hasn’t succeeded in stopping the French initiative, and if all it does is recite shopworn talking points, it probably never will. Blocking the French initiative will require Netanyahu to propose an alternative.

In an attempt to do so, the prime minister wagered all his chips on Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the regional initiative they have been promoting. This is also one of the messages Netanyahu delivered in his telephone conversations with several Western foreign ministers on Thursday: No to the French initiative, yes to the Egyptian one. 

But one of the main conditions of the plan drafted by Blair, Al-Sissi and a few other international players was that Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni and their Zionist Union faction join the government. Netanyahu is now trying to transfer that plan to a government in which Avigdor Lieberman has become defense minister, while also still trying to bring Zionist Union into the government. 

If he manages to persuade the Egyptian president that there’s someone to talk to and something to talk about, he’ll have taken a big step toward killing the French initiative, or at least changing it in a way that would serve Israel’s interests.

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