Any Hope for French ME Peace Initiative?

There needs to be a different international approach towards Israel-Palestine, one which begins by imposing a cost to Israel's occupation in order to make it untenable.
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By Tareq Baconi and Alaa Tartir. Tareq Baconi and Alaa Tartir are, respectively, Policy Fellow and Program Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network

France hosted the preliminary session of an international peace conference on Israel-Palestine on June 3. That marked the first serious effort to reinitiate the peace process after the failure of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's initiative in early 2014. And yet France is resisting the lesson which many hoped would be learnt following the failure of Kerry's initiative: without significant reform, the peace process that has dominated over two decades of diplomacy on Israel-Palestine is set to fail.

In preparation for the Paris conference, the French fielded a delegation to Israel and Palestine. They were focused primarily on meeting with Israeli members of the negotiating team, and addressing their concerns about the conference - even though Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had clearly expressed his disinterest in the French initiative. Rather than support French efforts, Netanyahu reiterated his supposed commitment to bilateral negotiations between the parties. He also showed a favorable stance to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's unexpected and somewhat bewildering revival of the Arab Peace Initiative.

By contrast, according to reliable sources close to the French negotiating team, the Palestinian leadership appeared just too happy to do anything in order to be at the negotiation table. "They are just too easy and too keen," a French source said, "they are more excited than we are."

This brief window into the French thinking made clear that the basic structural problems that have waylaid past diplomatic efforts have not been addressed. Rather, Israel's rejection of a lasting peace agreement and the Palestinian leadership's inability to develop sufficient negotiating clout persist.

The history of the peace process is riddled with failure precisely because it assumes a symmetry between the two parties where it does not exist. This assumption was on full display in the days leading to the French initiative: the Israelis have no real reason to give up on a cost-free occupation, and the Palestinians have no effective way of compelling them to do so.

Other glaring shortfalls are evident. Asked how the peace process would address the situation in Gaza, the sources quoted above said that, for the French delegates "Gaza is not a priority." The division between Gaza and the West Bank, which in many ways persists because of international policies that discourage unity, appear to have been accepted and even integrated into the very structures of diplomacy. This further erodes any Palestinian capacity to push for a just settlement.

The move away from an American-centric peace process is in itself a positive development, given the failed U.S track record in acting as an honest broker in negotiations. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) support for this initiative grows out of the international nature of the conference. Yet internationalization does not in itself address the fundamental imbalance between the two parties. Unless the process is reformed to bring pressure to bear on Israel to abide by international law, rather than simply to negotiate, the outcome is destined to failure, with disastrous consequences for the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation as well as for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

With the current constellation of power within Israel, the most right leaning coalition in Israel's history, any hope for the ratification of a lasting peace grounded in international law is little more than fantasy.

But indeed that is the point. The peace process continues to serve its purpose: it is the charade or act of the process itself, rather than the outcome, which France appears to be seeking. The conference is little more than a platform from which to expand France's diplomatic mission and export its soft power back into the Middle East. At a time when the U.S. is retreating, France possibly sees itself as taking a lead in the region. Further, France appears to see peace making around Israel-Palestine as a stepping stone into broader diplomacy elsewhere.

The illusion of the "peace process" has exacerbated the conflict over the past two decades. The Oslo Accords, which emerged from bilateral negotiations between the parties, failed to end the conflict, but rather strengthened Israel's control over the Palestinian territories. A plethora of initiatives have since been put forward against a backdrop of Israeli settlement expansion, colonization of Palestinian land and resources, and creeping Judaizisation of Jerusalem.

There needs to be a different international approach towards Israel-Palestine, one which begins by imposing a cost to Israel's occupation in order to make it untenable. Negotiations cannot proceed while Israel acts with impunity. With the failure of Kerry's initiative, even the U.S. appears to have accepted that a commitment to the peace process in its current form might need revisiting. The French should also take heed and reconsider. Reviving shopworn efforts in Paris will not help produce a different outcome.

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