Analysis

Trump Was the Elephant in the Room at the Paris Peace Conference

Fear of what the president-elect's inauguration will bring was evident in many of the foreign ministers’ speeches; the question that hovered in the air was whether this would be the last peace conference for the next four years.

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini during the Mideast peace conference in Paris, Sunday January 15, 2017.
Reuters/Pool

PARIS - Dozens of foreign ministers attending Sunday’s peace conference in Paris came up to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Some shook his hand, others hugged him, some even wanted to be photographed with him. The event served as the international community’s farewell to the Obama administration and as group therapy ahead of President-elect Donald Trump’s entry into the White House on Friday.

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Trump was the elephant in the conference room. Fear of what January 20 will bring was evident in many of the foreign ministers’ speeches, especially those of the French hosts.

There is uncertainty about Trump’s foreign policy toward most of the world, but especially with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The question that was never asked directly, but hovered in the air, was whether the Paris gathering would be the last peace conference for the next four years.

Statements by Trump and his advisers about moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the appointment of settlement supporter David Friedman as ambassador to Israel; Trump’s responses last month to both the UN Security Council resolution on the settlements and Kerry’s speech on the peace process; and the rejoicing among right-wing politicians and settlement activists after his election – these are just some of the reasons why so many foreign ministers at the conference were worried.

Both French President François Hollande and his foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, stressed that the conference was meant to send Trump a message about the international consensus on the need to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace and a two-state solution.

And they were right. European foreign ministers were there in force; all the Sunni Arab states with whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu longs to achieve a breakthrough sent their foreign ministers; and even many of the African states Netanyahu has been courting sent representatives to show their support for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But consensus also reigned on the micro level: across the board opposition to moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and fear that doing so would inflame the Middle East.

Trump was also a major factor in the considerations of the countries that opposed the conference, including Israel. “These are the death throes of yesterday’s world,” Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “Tomorrow will look different.”

Netanyahu has been fantasizing for weeks about his first Oval Office meeting with Trump, which will apparently take place in the first week of February. He’s been waiting eight long years for this meeting.

But Trump also explains why Russia and the United Kingdom had reservations about the Paris conference and sent only low-level representatives. The Russians hope to exploit the Trump era to realize their dream of hosting a peace conference in Moscow – or at least a summit meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The British, who are currently planning their exit from the European Union, are making every effort to differentiate themselves from the Obama administration’s policies and fall into line with what they expect Trump’s policies to be.

Nevertheless, both those who fear Trump and those who eagerly await him may end up being somewhat disappointed. The confirmation hearings for Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense-designate James Mattis made clear that the Trump administration’s policies are at best not fully formed and at worst nonexistent on almost every issue, including the Israeli-Palestinian one. Thus, the dismay of the Europeans and Palestinians, and the rejoicing of Netanyahu and the settlers, are both liable to prove premature.

Trump and his staff have emphasized in recent weeks that advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace will be high on their priority list. We’ll soon find out how they plan to do this. Right now, it’s not even clear if they themselves know.