With less than a week before it signs off, the Barack Obama administration has an opportunity to give its last word on ever elusive Middle East peace — an issue that Obama promised in 2009 to make a focus of his tenure, but on which he failed to deliver.
The Paris Peace Conference will finally assemble Sunday in the French capital, after months of intensive engagement by French diplomacy.
The conference is comes less than three weeks after the UN Security Council managed, thanks to a rare US abstention, to adopt a resolution against the Israeli policy of settlement construction on the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, upon which a Palestinian state could be established under the formula of a two-state solution to end the conflict.
Decrying the illegal annexation of Palestinian territories by Israeli settlements is expected to be a key message to come out of the Paris meeting that is to be attended by some 70 states and organisations, but with no representation of either the Palestinian Authority (PA), which had praised the conference against the backdrop of long neglect on the part of the international community, or Israel that has lobbied hard against the conference, calling the idea a Palestinian-French ploy.
On Friday, in New York, opposite the French mission, a few hundred pro-Israel Jewish protestors demonstrated against the Paris conference and said that it showed an anti-Israeli bias by France that had in during World War II took part in deporting Jews to concentration camps.
The Paris conference is to convene at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is counting the days until the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump, who has openly promised to side with Israel in a way that no other US president has done. Trump has promised to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, a move PA official Saeb Erekat appealed to Russian Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov, in Moscow, to block.
A Palestinian diplomat told Ahram Online that if the Paris conference is not able to produce anything but a clear position against the recognition of de facto changes introduced by Israel to the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem as the capital of the aspired Palestinian state, it still would not be a flop.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the Paris conference as a mere photo op, the Palestinian diplomat said, But he insisted that it should do more than merely kickstart momentum towards a negotiated settlement.
However, the Palestinian diplomat added, that conference faces an uphill battle from the beginning by convening in the 11th hour not only of the Obama administration, but also of the presidency of host Francois Hollande, whose term in office comes to an end in spring, with no serious chances for any candidate from his Socialist Party to make it to the Élysée Palace.
French diplomacy had hoped the conference would be convened late summer or in the early autumn of 2016. Now, French diplomacy is acting, in the words of a French diplomat who requested anonymity, to "remind" the international community of the need to keep pursuing the two-state solution, and the basis upon which this solution could be reached, “because the alternative is possibly a sudden eruption of anger and maybe violence.”
French diplomacy is not unaware of Israeli resilience to efforts of the international community to put negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis back on track after a moratorium for over five years; first because of the reluctance of Israel to stop the construction of illegal settlements on Palestinian territories, as expected by the parameters of all successive initiatives for Middle East peace, and also because the Arab world has been so involved in "managing" the Arab Spring.
In the words of the Palestinian diplomat, “it is better than nothing; I mean it is a reminder to the world that there is still a Palestinian people suffering under Israeli occupation.”
Coming in the wake of the UN Security Council resolution that denounced Israel's settlement construction policy, the Palestinian diplomat added, the expected Paris declaration should provide two things: a blueprint for any possible process of negotiations that anyone in the Middle East or elsewhere would want to start, and a reminder to the Trump administration of what Washington would have agreed to.
“I am not saying that this or anything would necessarily stop Trump from taking whatever measures he would wish to take, but it would at least prompt the State Department under Trump to remind the new US president of the diplomatic cost of reversing positions,” he said.
And, he added, it grants the PA with a position to stick to if asked to go to the negotiations table with Israel.
The PA had not been very forthcoming about an Egyptian proposal for a meeting to bring together Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
Abbas has reportedly told El-Sisi that he was willing to join any serious effort revive the peace process from the ashes, but that he could not do so while Netanyahu is refusing to suspend illegal settlement construction and refusing that peace talks come under an international umbrella.
“I stick by what I said in the summer of 2016, we in the PA are done with direct bilateral talks with Israel that would at best produce a temporary improvement to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza or in the West Bank. We have been doing this for years and now we need to get serious, internationally-sponsored peace talks,” the Palestinian diplomat said.
He added that this is why the PA is “actually quite keen on the Paris conference" and this is why "Netanyahu had tried so hard to block it; not because it would produce anything that Netanyahu would have to stick to, but because it would remind the world that it cannot be leaving the fate of Palestinians to the will of Netanyahu.”
In this sense, the same Palestinian diplomat added, the Paris conference would strengthen the many “brave movements” working to support Palestinian rights, including those on boycotting the products of Israeli settlements.