Despite the attention garnered by Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Middle East, as U.S.- European tensions increase, will Europe, and France in particular, find a more assertive and distinctive voice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
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While there is no doubt that the U.S. will continue to play the lead in attempts to resuscitate the Middle East peace process, Trump’s visit brought few tangible signs of an imminent U.S. peace initiative. France, which has long been critical of the ongoing diplomatic impasse, also has a new leader taking his first steps on the international stage. Although President Emanuel Macron has, so far, adopted a rebalanced stance compared to that of his predecessor Francois Hollande, in practice, he is likely to continue France’s traditional policy trajectory.
Even though France’s contribution to the peace process under President Hollande fizzled out in early 2017, it did attest to a newfound ambition to roll up its sleeves in support of what is left of the two-state solution. French diplomats spent considerable time and sweat attempting to advance peace efforts.
But ultimately, the Hollande government seemed content with the diplomatic (and media) spotlight that accompanied the effort, rather than push for the sort of action initially announced to genuinely advance the peace process. Disagreements on the role of the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini as the main European player, along with resistance from Israel and the incoming Trump administration, further detracted from its attempts to resolve a conflict that is now 50 years old.
In the end, French efforts were largely contained to soundbites and photo-ops. In January 2016, Laurent Fabius grabbed headlines when he vowed to recognize the State of Palestine should a renewed push for a two-state solution fail. Seventeen months and one foreign minister later, no such promise materialized. This, despite the disappearance of diplomatic horizons for achieving a two-state solution, the entrenchment of Israel’s de-facto annexation of the West Bank, and the inconclusiveness of France’s own peace push.
President Hollande’s initiative culminated in an international peace conference in January 2017 bringing together over 70 states (and didn’t include Israeli and Palestinian representatives). But despite the hype, it produced no more than a principled final communique that lacked any operational follow-up, and was soon lost amidst the countless other statements produced by the international community over past decades.
Given the extensive (and semi-successful) efforts undertaken by Israel to neutralize French efforts under Hollande (described by Prime Minister Netanyahu as a rigged initiative that pushed peace backwards), Macron’s election will have been greeted with a cautious sigh of relief by Israeli officials. While the new French president has made limited policy pronouncements on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, his apparent internalization of Israeli concerns has no doubt been seen as encouraging from an Israeli perspective.
In line with his predecessor, and current French law, Macron has voiced his strict opposition to any form of boycott against Israel, in favour of further developing economic and trade ties. And in a significant departure from previous policy, he voiced his refusal to recognize a Palestinian state outside of a peace deal. To cap things off, his campaign website confirmed his deep commitment to Israeli security given the current regional environment, while criticising France’s support for last year's UNESCO resolution that described East Jerusalem as occupied territory, and omitted Jewish connections to the Western Wall.
There is, however, a flip side. While much less explicit in his support for Palestinian positions, Macron has contrasted a "hardening" Israeli position with a "moderate and responsible" Palestinian leadership. Perhaps even more disheartening to the Israeli government, is his disapproval of Israel’s "bellicose" policies, including settlement activities, and his belief that moving forward on the MEPP requires both parties to respect international law.
It remains to be seen if Macron’s words can be interpreted as support for the law-based strategies promoted by France over the past years, such as measures to differentiate between Israel and its settlements. The latter included French support for UNSCR 2334 which called on all states "to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967", as well as the publication by France of its own national guidelines on the correct labelling of settlement products.
In any case, there are many signs of political continuity with France’s traditional attempts at internationalizing the peace process, striking a balanced stance between the parties and salvaging the two-state solution. There are also ample reasons for France to stay the recent course, from a domestic, European, and international standpoint.
But in calibrating French policy towards Israel/Palestine, Macron will have to factor in blocking efforts from the Trump White House, and post-Brexit Britain – two actors that helped frustrate France’s last peace attempts. In particular, Prime Minister Theresa May’s desire to align her country with Trump – already perceptible during January’s Paris conference – has fed deepening intra-European divisions on the MEPP and, even with Brexit looming, may make it harder for Macron to mobilise EU member states in support of his policies, if it appears like a challenge to U.S. leadership.
But these more difficult relations with a U.S. that is vacillating between backing a peace-making model that has failed for over 20 years, or reneging on long-held positions underpinning the two state solution, may offer Macron an opportunity. Alienation from the U.S. to whatever degree could represent a further opening for France to articulate a bolder and more assertive common European policy – one that places greater weight on international norms, multilateralism and a sense of urgency to resolving the conflict.
A French government that is prepared to disagree with Washington and challenge its monopoly on the conflict could go some way towards counter-balancing negative dynamics that Washington might broadcast. France could be the lead state to safeguard the territorial basis for a two-state solution and disincentivise Israel’s prolonged occupation.
In this regard, President Macron may be able to draw on the narrow Franco-German cooperation that already seems to be emerging on a number of other issues – from the fight against climate change to European security cooperation – to build a distinct and bolder European voice.
A willingness and ability to continue mobilizing likeminded states, in Europe and beyond, around long standing policy positions and legal norms relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could also play an important role in broader efforts to defend a rules-based international order.
Manuel Lafont Rapnouil is Paris Office Director and Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Follow him on Twitter: @mlafontrapnouil
Hugh Lovatt is Policy Fellow and Israel/Palestine Project Coordinator at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), based in London. Follow him on Twitter: @h_lovatt