Why Did Netanyahu Screw Up the French Peace Initiative?

If peace is your stated agenda, you don’t reject an outstretched hand. You can stall all you like afterward, but, publicly at least, you say yes.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in the Golan Heights, Israel, April 17, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 2016.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner, AP

Three words: Israel. Rejects. Peace. After the Netanyahu government made good on its promise to reject an invitation to France’s “puzzling” international peace conference later this year, reports around the world all featured these three key words.

In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Benjamin Netanyahu tried to soften his “no,” saying, “The best way to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is by direct and bilateral negotiations.” As it stands, the French initiative will go ahead without Israel’s participation, with a May 30 preparatory summit in which dozens of foreign ministers (none of them Israeli or Palestinian) are expected to discuss possible ways to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Though the Prime Minister’s Office insisted that Israel is ready to begin direct negotiations without preconditions, the narrative that reverberated around the world was clear: Peace talks were on the table, and Israel responded with total rejection.

Why would Israel botch so badly what was clearly a rare PR opportunity? All Netanyahu had to do was agree to the summit, shake a few hands, smile for the cameras and then stall – just like Israel has done for more than a decade of failed negotiations. It’s just good PR: if peace is your stated agenda, you don’t reject an outstretched hand. You can stall all you like afterward, but, publicly at least, you say yes.

An Israeli “yes” could have done more for its image abroad than 100 public diplomacy videos, helped negate its current international image as a militaristic peace refusenik and shown that Israel can be a willing partner for peace. Or at least, it wouldn’t have provided further evidence to bolster that image. Now, all anyone’s going to remember about this latest episode is that France wanted to organize a peace conference, the Palestinians agreed to participate – and Israel refused.

True, the French initiative is a little puzzling. The brainchild and passion project of former Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, its stated goal is to break the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians, and promote a two-state solution by organizing an international peace summit in Paris with European, American and Arab mediators. If it fails, France previously threatened that it would go ahead and recognize the Palestinian state.

Israel should have accepted the invitation. But that’s not to say there aren’t legitimate questions regarding the viability of the French initiative. There are plenty.

For one, there’s an implied threat hanging over it – which isn’t a strong indicator of a constructive atmosphere, to say the least. Its timing, with Israelis shifting further to the right due to the recent wave of terror attacks and Palestinians despairing of the peace process, couldn’t be worse, as both sides have absolutely no will or ability to push for radical compromises. And its proposed structure – a 1990s-style international peace summit – is hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch with the way both peoples perceive the 23 years that have followed the Oslo Accords.

Considering that its preparatory summit will take place in May 30 without Israelis or Palestinians, the overall disconnect of the initiative from the political realities of the region is not a surprise. And with both sides lacking commitment, it’s not like the intended mediators have much interest in taking on the practically unsolvable mess that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and getting the two sides to talk to each other. All have bigger, more immediate concerns: the refugee crisis in Europe, the Islamic State group threatening the security of Arab states; an election year in the United States.

All these indicate a halfhearted attempt to revive the defunct peace process, and pretty much guarantees that the French initiative will suffer a fate similar to that of John Kerry’s, which broke down in 2014. True, in this case the French mediators will likely be less sympathetic to Israel than Kerry and the U.S. State Department. But more likely than not, the summit will amount to nothing much.

France's then-Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius with Netanyahu in Jerusalem. June 2015. The new peace initiative was Fabius' brainchild.Credit: AFP

In the grand narrative Israel has been trying to sell the world since the Camp David talks collapsed in 2000 – the one in which Israel is the only willing partner for peace and the Palestinians are the rejectionists – such gestures are crucial.

The Netanyahu of 2014, the one who sent then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to negotiate with the Palestinians, was not much more optimistic about the chances of the Kerry initiative. But he understood that the unwritten rules of internationally mediated peace initiatives dictate that both sides should at least appear to be game.

But Netanyahu 2016 has more pressing considerations than appeasing the French (although if this was a U.S. initiative, he might have been forced to say yes). A lot has happened since 2014: a war in Gaza; a nascent intifada; an extreme right-wing shift in Israeli politics. All have made the very concept of peace negotiations not just futile but politically toxic.

Netanyahu himself articulated the prevalent myopia that dominates the political discourse in Israel when he said, last October, that Israel “will always live by the sword.” It’s too risky a proposition for Netanyahu, who’s currently fielding attacks that he’s too weak on Palestinian terrorism.

And so, instead of basking in flattering international headlines, Netanyahu has once again chosen to pander to his base and bolster his right-wing credentials – even if that means fueling his image abroad as the eternal rejectionist; perpetuating the narrative that Israel is against any and every diplomatic solution; and providing further fodder to those who already believe that Israel is obstinate beyond repair.

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