The Last Tango in Paris: Behind the Scenes of the Peace Conference

An inside look at the 15-minute blame game in the Kerry-Netanyahu phone call, the surprising speech of the Saudi foreign minister and the new UN bid that was turned down at the last moment.

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Netanyahu and Kerry during a meeting in Jerusalem, June 2013.
Netanyahu and Kerry during a meeting in Jerusalem, June 2013.Credit: Reuters

An hour before the Paris Peace Conference on Sunday, one of the participating foreign ministers approached U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who was just wrapping up his speech and about to leave.

The minister told Kerry that his country was ready to head a process of having the presidium of the United Nations Security Council issue a statement adopting the conclusions of the Paris conference.

Kerry didn't think for long before politely rejecting the proposal.

"We could have said yes and advance it without any problems if we wanted," said a senior diplomatic official involved in the contents of the proposal given to Kerry, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"But we said we weren't interested, because what we wanted wasn't another step at the Security Council but achieving international consensus on the principles presented by Kerry in his December 28 speech."

Kerry definitely achieved that goal in Paris. Senior American diplomats who were present say one after the other that dozens of foreign ministers at the conference spoke in favor of the principles presented by Kerry.

It sounds perhaps trivial until you think about the content of those principles. The contain recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, annexation of settlement blocs by Israel, full demilitarization of a Palestinian state and a resolution of the refugee issue in a "realistic" way that wouldn't change the character of the state of Israel.

The American diplomats said that the one who stood out at the closed foreign ministers meeting in Paris was Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir.

Jubeir devoted a central part of his speech to the American secretary of state's plan and expressed full support for it without any reservations.

The Saudi position that was presented at the Paris conference with regard to the Jewish state and Kerry's other principles was a result of discrete contacts the outgoing American secretary of state held with Jubeir and other senior Saudi officials in the past two years, especially ahead of Kerry's end of December speech.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at the UN, September 29, 2015.Credit: AP

American diplomats said that if the speech mentioned Israel solely as a Jewish state, then Arab countries especially Saudi Arabia wouldn’t accept it.

Therefore the wording that was decided referenced UN General Assembly Resolution 181, from November 1947, which supported partition to a Jewish and Arab state and guaranteed full equal rights to the citizens of both states. American diplomats said the Saudis made clear that if that was the wording of Kerry's speech they would support the plan.

On Saturday, a day before the conference began, senior diplomats from all the participating countries met. The wording of the Kerry plan as brought to the meeting was relatively softer and included a statement that participating countries "take note" of Kerry's speech.

The U.S. envoy to the peace process, Frank Levinstein, demanded the wording be "reinforced" significantly. The Arab League representatives differed and said some Arab representatives at the conference may have a problem with it, because of some of the clauses of Kerry's peace plan.

They were mainly referring to the paragraphs regarding a Jewish state and the Palestinian refugee issue.

A senior American diplomat said the United States was insistent and persuaded the Arab League representatives and Arab countries to agree to improve the wording of Kerry's speech.

Finally the summation statement of the conference included a remark that participating countries welcome the principles achieved by the American secretary of state, effectively meant adoption of the plan.

The American diplomat said the meaning of the final statement of the Paris conference is that the entire international community accepts Israel as a Jewish state with equality for all its citizens. "This issue has finally been normalized," he said.

On Sunday afternoon, when the wording of the statement was nearly closed Kerry decided to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to update him.

They have spoken about 400 times in the past four years, but this was their first conversation after a two-week hiatus since UN Security Council Resolution 2334, regarding the settlements, was passed.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault addresses delegates at the opening of the Mideast peace conference in Paris on January 15, 2017.Credit: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

A senior American diplomat said that the conversation last 15 minutes and was quite tense. Kerry reviewed the final statement and said the U.S. understands where Israel's red lines are and has brought about the most balanced statement possible.

Netanyahu listened and responded with a sharp attack. "You have already done us enough damage by the Security Council resolution, which you didn't veto, don't do us any more damage," the prime minister said.

Netanyahu went on to lay blame against Kerry and repeated his claim that the United States had broken with a years' long tradition by lending a hand to the Security Council resolution that determined that the Western Wall in Jerusalem was a part of  occupied Palestinian land.

The American diplomat said Kerry replied very fiercely to this accusation.

"You can't be serious. You know it is not true. History makes it very clear that the Reagan Administration and the H. W. Bush Administration passed a resolution, multiple resolutions, with exactly the same references with respect to occupied territory in East Jerusalem."

Kerry quoted to Netanyahu portions of his December 28 speech in which he made clear the Obama Administration respects the historic and religious ties of Israel to Jerusalem holy sites.

Kerry read Netanyahu another quote from his speech in which he stressed how the United States doesn't see Security Council Resolution 2334 as determining the outcomes of negotiations and believes the future border but reflects historic ties and the reality on the ground.

"That’s our position. We still support it ... there was nothing new in this UN resolution," Kerry said.

Kerry protested to Netanyahu against his choice to accuse the United States of acting against Israel without saying anything about the principles he presented in his speech, a large number of which answer Israel's demands.

"Look, we have succeeded in mustering an international consensus about the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and the demand for a demilitarized Palestinian state," Kerry told Netanyahu.

"Look at the wording of the right of return and the need for the refugee issue to be resolved by the principle of two states for two peoples and the wording about security arrangements."

The senior American diplomat said that Netanyahu listened and didn't respond. He said that despite the U.S. secretary of state coming to an end of his term, his peace plan was adopted by nearly the entire international community and has created a way forward the Trump Administration can use if it wishes to.

"We hope that when the dust settles everyone will look back and see that Kerry has worked on a hopeless issue and managed to leave behind him a set of principles that could be used in future negotiations," the American diplomat said.

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