WASHINGTON -- Since the the latest round of U.S.-led peace talks collapsed last year, the international community has left the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester.
Three months after talks failed, war broke out in Gaza between Hamas and the Israeli military, leaving 66 Israelis and more than 2,000 Palestinians dead. In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured re-election after a campaign in which he suggested he would not allow for the creation of a Palestinian state. And on Sept. 30, amid escalating violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the U.N. General Assembly he would no longer abide by the Oslo Accords, a Clinton-era attempt to finalize Palestinian statehood by 1998.
"Never before in my memory has there been such a total absence of any sense of hope of political horizon," said Daniel Seidemann, the founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a nonprofit organization that tracks changes in Jerusalem that could affect a future two-state solution.
Now, with the peace process stalled, Israeli hardliners empowered, settlements expanding, escalating violence in Jerusalem and West Bank, and talk of a third intifada, the French have decided it's time for the international community to change its strategy -- and end the U.S. monopoly on the peace process.
For decades, the U.S. has been the key broker of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. After the Second Intifada in 2000, there was an effort to bring in additional power brokers. But the resulting so-called Middle East Quartet -- made up of the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia -- remains dominated by Washington and has done little to bring peace to the region.
In the lead-up to last month’s U.N. General Assembly, the French proposed a new idea: If the Quartet can't get the parties to agree on to a deal, maybe adding 19 more countries -- including Saudi Arabia, Norway, China and Ireland -- and the Arab League to the peace talks would make it easier.
Riyad Mansour, Palestinian ambassador to the U.N., welcomed the French effort, noting it includes "friends to both parties," and cited the recent success of the P5+1 -- a group made up of the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China, Russia and Germany -- in the Iran nuclear negotiations as an example of the benefits of multilateral diplomacy.
So just hours after Abbas' declaration in September, this new, expanded negotiating team met for the first time. The group's hour-and-a-half-long meeting was brief, considering the size of the body, and the discussion was limited to broad parameters that would be inoffensive to all parties: holy sites in Jerusalem need to be kept under the existing status quo, settlements in the occupied territories should freeze, and the international community should provide positive incentives to both parties to pursue a final agreement.
France plans to invite representatives from the 24-member body back for ongoing meetings. The eventual goal, the diplomat said, is to bring up a Palestinian statehood resolution at the Security Council.
France has tried a similar gambit before. In the months following the 2014 Gaza War, the country began drafting a Security Council resolution that would have laid out baseline parameters for a two-state solution. But the Palestinians beat them to it, introducing their own resolution in December, which set a two-year deadline for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The U.S. criticized the proposal as one-sided and unrealistic and vetoed it.
Since then, any discussion of a resolution on statehood, even a more open-ended version, is met with resistance by the Israeli government, which sees U.N. involvement in the conflict as an attempt to impose a solution on Israel without their consent.
"After 20 years of trying everything, instead of the situation moving from bad to better, the situation is moving from bad to worse," Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador, told HuffPost in an interview shortly after Abbas called off the Oslo Accords.
"Israel can afford to continue negotiating for the sake of negotiation forever, while they are illegally changing the reality on the ground through settlements," he continued. "We are not interested in that form of wasting time."
The Israeli government did not respond to a request for comment on the French proposal.
Seidemann, who works closely with European officials in their efforts to advance the peace process, predicts the expanded Quartet won’t fly without Washington’s blessing.
"What is absolutely amazing to me is how reluctant [the Europeans] are to depose Daddy, even when Daddy has deposed himself," he said. "There is no appetite to fill a void being left by the United States."
But even with U.S. support, it’s unclear whether an expanded Quartet would be any more effective than the original four-member body, which Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to Palestinian leadership, described as "a statement-producing mechanism," dominated by U.S. policy preferences.
Since the Quartet operates by consensus, “it comes down to the lowest common denominator effect,” explained Elgindy, who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This lowest common denominator is almost always Washington, which is usually much closer to the Israeli position than any of the other three actors.”
State Department spokesman Eddie Vasquez told HuffPost, "We will continue to work with our partners, including the French, to advance the prospect for a two-state solution and provide a horizon of hope for Israelis and Palestinians, while opposing all efforts that would undermine that goal."
In a way, surrendering part of the responsibility for facilitating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians could work to Washington’s advantage. It’s no secret that the Obama administration is torn between its distaste for Netanyahu and the political limitations of taking any action perceived as unsupportive of Israel.
"If the Europeans wanted to take a hard-nosed stance on settlements, that’s something the U.S. can’t do for domestic political reasons," Elgindy said. "But why not let Europe play bad cop on that front while we just shrug our shoulders and say, 'That’s Europe, what are we going to do?'" he continued, noting that the U.S. could also opt to refrain from using its veto power in the Security Council.
At the same time, as Seidemann noted, "The White House has been the master of the universe for quite some time, and you don't cede that role easily. These habits die hard."