PARIS — With the Obama administration having effectively given up on negotiating a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, France tried its hand on Friday at making Middle East peace but ended the day with little to show for its efforts.
Even before President François Hollande convened diplomats from 29 countries for the session — including Secretary of State John Kerry but no representatives of either the Israelis or the Palestinians — France had backed off its initial hope that it could produce progress where United States-led efforts had not.
Still, the meeting underscored how the tense relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, weak leadership among the Palestinians and the array of other conflicts in the region have combined to create a diplomatic void at a time when Europe’s support for Israel has shown some cracks.
“The French are taking advantage of the vacuum left by the United States,” Frédérique Schillo, a French historian who specializes in Israel and international relations, said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
“They have duly noted the failure of Kerry’s mission,” Ms. Schillo said, referring to nine months of talks spearheaded by Mr. Kerry that collapsed in 2014.
“And they have also noted a certain disengagement of the Americans in the Middle East,” she added, including in Israel, but also on other issues like the conflict in Syria, where the United States backed out of conducting airstrikes in 2013, leaving the French bitter.
Since then, however, the United States has been by far the most active country in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Mr. Hollande acknowledged the complexity of the peace talks in his opening remarks on Friday.
“We are no longer in the situation of 1993, with the Oslo accords, or of 2002, with the Arab peace initiative. We aren’t in the situation of 2007, with the big international conference in Annapolis,” Mr. Hollande said. “We are in 2016, with the war in Syria, with the war in Iraq, with terrorism and fundamentalism.”
In the two years since Mr. Kerry’s efforts to negotiate a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians broke down, tensions between the two parties have simmered and flared repeatedly, prompting France to propose a new process.
But in the months since revealing its initiative in January, France had already tempered its ambitions and its policy positions amid a change in its foreign policy leadership. The French foreign minister at the time of the initial proposal, Laurent Fabius, had said in January that France would unilaterally recognize Palestine as an independent state if the effort failed. Mr. Fabius has since been replaced by Jean-Marc Ayrault and is no longer pushing for unilateral recognition of an independent Palestinian state.
The meeting on Friday, which lasted only about three hours, amounted to little more than an extended photo opportunity, a way for France to show that it was still committed to a peace process in the Middle East.
In a statement issued after the conference, the participants said that they had “reaffirmed” their commitment to a two-state solution, and expressed alarm about the situation on the ground, “in particular continued acts of violence and ongoing settlement activity.”
“The participants underscored that the status quo is not sustainable,” the statement said. The statement called for “fully ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967,” language that differed from that typically used by the United States in its diplomacy around the conflict.
But the conference produced few concrete measures to be taken in the near future. Instead, French officials said, the meeting was the first step toward fostering a positive environment for the Israelis and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. The French said they would coordinate discussions and help organize another international conference by the end of the year, this time with the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“The goal isn’t to force the parties to negotiate,” Mr. Ayrault said at a news conference after the meeting. “But we are not doomed to do nothing, doomed to stay sit idly by as observers, simply expressing regrets.”
Israel and the Palestinians have expressed strong disagreements about the French initiative. The Palestinians, who have spoken of the need to “internationalize” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have welcomed it.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official and the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, said in an op-ed published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Thursday that the French initiative was the “the flicker of hope Palestine has been waiting for.”
“We are confident that it will provide a clear framework with defined parameters for the resumption of negotiations,” Mr. Erekat wrote.
Israel, however, is stridently opposed to France’s initiative.
Reacting to the meeting held in Paris on Friday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that the conference “constituted a missed opportunity.”
“History will record that the conference in Paris only hardened the Palestinian position and distanced the chances for peace,” the statement said.
Speaking on the eve of the Paris meeting, Dore Gold, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, even compared the French effort to the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret colonialist pact signed by Britain and France 100 years ago to divide up the territory of the Ottoman Empire.
Describing the modern Middle East as being “in an advanced stage of meltdown,” Mr. Gold said, “Initiatives of this sort failed then and will fail today.”
The Israeli leadership says it prefers a regional track whereby the moderate Arab states would provide the infrastructure for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
But it is unclear to what extent Arab leaders will be willing cooperate openly with Israel’s right-wing government, and after years of futile, intermittent negotiations with Israel, the Palestinians say they have lost hope in bilateral talks.
After the meeting in Paris on Friday, when asked about Mr. Gold’s comparison of the French initiative to the Sykes-Picot agreement, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said that without a “regional and international framework” the two parties would not “spontaneously” sit down at the negotiating table.
“It is not about imposing, it is not about dictating, it is not even about indicating the steps or the content,” Ms. Mogherini said. “It is about creating the space, the possibility, the framework for the parties to re-engage seriously, credibly.”
“We still refer to the Middle East process, but the reality of fact is that at this moment there is no peace process at all,” she said.
(via NY Times)