Last week a senior official in the French Foreign Ministry met with counterparts in Jerusalem for routine talks. The Palestinian issue dominated the agenda, but there was not even a hint of the initiative for an international conference announced on Friday by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, much less his threat to recognize a Palestinian state in the event the measure fails.
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That’s because even in the Quai d’Orsay, very few knew of Fabius’ plans. Senior Israeli officials said they would not be surprised if even the Elysee Palace learned of it from the media.
Since becoming foreign minister in 2012, Fabius has been extremely active on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He pushed for several international initiatives, almost all of which made little to no progress. He is now widely expected to step down within weeks or months, for health and other personal reasons. One of the main motivations for his latest move is a desire to leave a legacy behind on the issue of Middle East peace.
Fabius is neither nave nor stupid. He knows that with the level of trust between Israel and the Palestinians at a nadir, with Israelis being killed almost daily in terror attacks, with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history in power and with the world’s attention focused on the war against ISIS, the likelihood of an international peace conference and the renewal of the talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are vanishingly slim, to say the least.
It almost seems that Fabius raised the idea knowing that it would fail, thus paving the way for other measures. If an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does take place, it will be a significant achievement for him. But if it does not come to pass within several weeks, he will be able to say that he tried to restart the negotiations countless times, and now the only way France can save the two-state solution is by recognizing a Palestinian state. In that event, Fabius would secure his place in French diplomatic history.
Israel, as usual, was the knee-jerk naysayer. Instead of offering a sophisticated response, praising the initiative and portraying it as a response to Netanyahu’s call to meet Abbas and renew the talks unconditionally, Jerusalem made a sour face and suggested that perhaps Paris will also propose a peace conference with the Islamic State. The Palestinians, with whom the move was presumably at least somewhat coordinated, hastened to praise it and announced their cooperation.
In recent years France has been the main driving in the European Union to pressure Israel on the Palestinian issue. The passivity of Netanyahu’s government in everything pertaining to the peace process, the situation in the Gaza Strip following the 2014 war there and the settlement construction policy in the West Bank only increased the French motivation to exert pressure on Israel.
However, it was Sweden, not France, which decided in October 2014 to be the first Western European state to recognize Palestine as a state. This led to a severe crisis in Israel’s relations with Sweden, but not one that affected Israel’s relations with other EU states. Also, no other European state followed Stockholm.
If Fabius’ move ripens into French recognition of Palestinian statehood, it will be a totally different story. Other countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Malta, Ireland, Spain and maybe also Finland and Denmark are likely to follow suit and recognize a Palestinian state too. This development would spell a further deterioration in Israel’s international status and increase the pressure on it to end the occupation.