Will the French Peace Initiative Become an Excuse for an Israeli Unity Government?

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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

Following his quick visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault held a brief press conference at Ben-Gurion Airport before taking off for Beijing. And in what seemed a cruel jest, the wall behind him in the Masada Lounge was covered by a huge tapestry of the Temple Mount.

Just a few hours earlier, Ayrault had received an earful from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about France’s support for a UNESCO resolution on the Temple Mount that omitted any mention of the Jews’ religious and historical ties to the site. It’s still not clear why the French supported the Palestinian-sponsored resolution just when they were trying to convene an international peace conference to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Aside from infuriating Netanyahu, the UNESCO vote gave him ammunition with which to torpedo the French initiative by portraying it as hostile. For days now, he has assailed the French as completely biased toward the Palestinians and said no country in the world could expect Israel to agree to accept France as the patron of the peace conference.

After having very belatedly understood that they had stepped on a political land mine, the French tried to do damage control. Senior Israeli officials said Ayrault rejected Netanyahu’s request that France officially renounce its UNESCO vote and correct the record. But the visiting minister did say a misunderstanding had occurred and promised to personally ensure that it wouldn’t happen again.

The French ultimately view the UNESCO affair as a mere bump in the road. Nor are they greatly concerned by Netanyahu’s opposition to their peace conference. As Ayrault told the press conference Sunday, he wasn’t surprised by Netanyahu’s objections, because he’d already heard them in the media. He added that he understands why Netanyahu prefers direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, but with the peace process currently going nowhere, there’s no alternative to outside intervention.

The impression Ayrault’s visit left is that the express train to the peace conference has already left the station, whether Netanyahu wants it or not. In any case, Ayrault noted, at this stage France is only convening the foreign ministers of other relevant countries. Israel and the Palestinians weren’t invited to that meeting, so Netanyahu doesn’t have to make any decisions yet.

But Netanyahu isn’t France’s biggest problem. What will really decide the fate of its peace initiative is how Washington and Moscow treat it.

Ayrault said every country in the world backs France’s idea, and that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry views it positively. And indeed Kerry may not be able to refuse to revisit the peace process that’s so dear to his heart. Nevertheless, neither he nor his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov has yet confirmed his participation.

Thus the French initiative might soon prove to be more serious than Netanyahu initially thought. And if Paris continues to move ahead with the same speed and determination it has shown to date, he is liable to find himself forced to attend the conference. But in its current composition, Netanyahu’s government would have trouble dealing with such a situation. Thus the French initiative might unintentionally provide the excuse for Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog to establish a unity government.

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