Netanyahu Has No Reason to Rejoice: The Paris Summit Is Just the Beginning

Jerusalem was quick to take credit for the softening of the meeting's final statement. Not only are the French determined to push their initiative, however, but the U.S. may launch a move of their own - even before November.

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Over 20 foreign ministers meeting in Paris on Friday to kick off the French initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Over 20 foreign ministers meeting in Paris on Friday to kick off the French initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peace.Credit: Kamil Zihnioglu/AFP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

It was a poor man's party in Jerusalem on Friday afternoon. Officials in both the Prime Minister's Bureau and the Foreign Ministry consoled themselves with the knowledge that the foreign ministers of Germany, Britain and Russia had declined to attend the foreign minister's meeting in Paris and that the final statement of the meeting was general and watered-down.

If, at first, Jerusalem was concerned that the French would launch a volley at goal, the result was more of a weak shot above the bar. But, to continue with the football metaphors and clichés, for President Francois Hollande and his Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault the league has just begun and they intend playing from Saturday to Saturday.

The French surprised everyone who didn't take them seriously. It was not for nothing that, at a press conference after the meeting, Ayrault mentioned several times that only a few weeks ago no one had believed that the foreign ministers would meet in Paris.

The person most responsible for the success of the meeting was senior diplomat Pierre Vimont, who Ayrault pulled out of retirement and put in charge of the project. Vimont, a seasoned, pleasant and charismatic diplomat, worked quietly and deliberately, succeeding in bringing foreign ministers from more than 20 countries to Paris.

Hollande and Ayrault have no intention of dropping their peace initiative. There will need to be a very good reason for them to change direction. The watered-down summation statement did not bother them. Even if their ambitious positions were deleted from the statement, they will continue to promote them and to push the initiative, delicately but with determination.

The next step will come before the end of this month. France is interested in proposing  that all the countries that attended the meeting, particularly the Arab countries, participate in the establishment of working groups that will draw up a package of economic incentives, security guarantees and immediate confidence-building measures intended to persuade Palestinians and Israelis to return to negotiations. It is likely that many countries will jump at the proposal.

In Jerusalem, the PM's bureau and Foreign Ministry were quick to take credit for the softening of the final statement of the meeting. That is not necessarily justified. Those responsible for denuding the French step of content were United States Secretary of State John Kerry and his people and they didn't do it out of love for Mordechai, but out of hatred of Haman.

Kerry was not particularly influenced by the panicked phone calls from Netanyahu, but was primarily concerned about ensuring that the French initiative did not pass the point of no return and did not give rise to an uncontrollable process.

Kerry arrived in Paris because he did not want to get into a spat with the French. But from his perspective, the trip to Paris could have been concluded immediately after the joint photograph of all the foreign ministers at the start of the proceedings.

He would have been happy to miss the five-hour diplomatic circus, during which he was compelled to listen to speeches by the foreign ministers of Senegal, Morocco, the Czech Republic and Luxemburg. What mainly drives Kerry is the need to keep the reins of the Middle East peace process in his own hands until the end of President Barack Obama's term in January.

The thing that should concern Prime Minister Netanyahu is the fact that the foreign ministers' meeting in Paris is just the start of a series of diplomatic events that will increase the international pressure on Israel regarding the Palestinian issue.

A report of the Middle East Quartet, on which senior diplomats from the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations have been working, is due to be published in another few weeks. Those responsible for writing the report were the Americans, but the other members of the Quartet contributed significantly.

The report, which is likely to be the most in-depth since the Mitchell Report of 2001, which dealt with the outbreak of the second intifada, is expected to embody the most up-to-date American position on the peace process.

The report will not be kind to either Netanyahu or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It will paint a dismal picture of the situation in the West Bank, the expansion of settlements and the current status of the two-state solution. It will be sharply critical of both sides, though diplomats who have seen the most recent draft say that anyone reading it can't help but arrive at the conclusion that most of the responsibility for the situation falls on Israel.

The report is likely to provide the basis for any potential American diplomatic process in the coming months, Obama's last chance to leave a legacy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The assumption in Israel is that if the Americans do indeed launch such a move, it will only happen after the presidential elections in November. That, at least, is the thinking in the PM's bureau.

But there's a not insignificant chance that the assumption of Netanyahu and his officials is entirely wrong. Senior American officials have been scattering more and more hints in recent weeks that they have no reason or intention to wait until November.

If Kerry and Obama decide to launch a final diplomatic push on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it is more than possible that they'll do it before the people of the United States have to decide between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. The period between the publication of the Quartet's report and summer vacation in August is one window of opportunity.

The UN General Assembly session in September, the final international event in which President Obama will participate, is another such window.

Netanyahu continued insisting on the weekend that one of the reasons he opposes the French initiative is his desire to promote the regional initiative that, according to him, is being led by Egypt. That initiative, he is convinced, has better prospects of leading to a resumption of talks with the Palestinians.

However, the impression from conversations with half-a-dozen Western diplomats who attended the Paris meeting was that the regional initiative could be no more than a product of the imaginations of Netanyahu and former British prime minister Tony Blair, who is assisting him.

Diplomats who discussed the issue with Egypt and representatives of other Arab countries said that they had not heard of any serious framework in preparation. The general responses they had received from the Egyptians made them think that regional peace is not about to break out tomorrow of the next day.

Netanyahu has very little reason to be satisfied after this weekend. If the regional initiative that he has been talking about recently does not take shape soon, the international pressure on Israel is only likely to increase.