Palestine-Israel peace talks: A failed French initiative?

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 31 May 2016

Former Israeli president Peres and French Prime Minister Valls
Former Israeli president Peres, left, and French Prime Minister Valls during a meeting at the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv (AP)

Observers in Cairo anticipated, early on, that Israel would snub the French initiative calling for an international conference to resume the Middle East peace process.

There are only two occasions in which Tel Aviv concluded a peace agreement with the Arabs in Camp David and Wadi Araba neither of which took the form of an international conference.

Indeed, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls would hear Netanyahu’s rejection of the French initiative first hand before leaving Israel.

In fact, Egypt was the starting point for the new drive to revive the peace process.

Speaking from Assiut on 18 May, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi alluded to an opportunity for peace with Israel, or a “warmer peace” as he put it, although he did not mention details regarding possible procedures.

Following that speech, observers in Cairo held that there was a move towards a “regional solution” as the alternative, referring to the possibility of reviving the “Arab Initiative” that Saudi Arabia had proposed and that was adopted by the Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002. 

In the 14 years since then, that initiative has remained frozen, with no additions or amendments made to adapt it to current regional circumstances. Nevertheless, the observers believed that concrete signs pointed in the direction. Above all, Riyadh has effectively replaced Egypt in a portion of the security annex of the Camp David Accords, due to the transfer of sovereignty of the Tiran and Sanafir islands. As a result, Riyadh will be dealing with Israel on matters related to regional security arrangements and the Palestinian question.

Sobhi Asila, editor-in-chief of Mukhtarat Israeliya (Israeli Selections) published by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, believes that “any attempt to cool down the region at present must grapple with the most fiercely burning issues. This is impossible without resolving the Palestinian question as an inroad to the cooling process.”

Asila added that this was precisely what President El-Sisi meant in his speech in Assiut, in which he urged sincere efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, since the Palestinian cause is the central issue in the region. He also noted that, as the president indicated in that speech, Cairo is prepared to resume its historic role in this drive.

On the possibility of Riyadh entering the field alongside Cairo in this question, Asila observed that Saudi Arabia has always played an auxiliary role as like other regional powers in general it recognised Egypt’s authentic role with regard to the Palestinian question, in view of Cairo’s ability to handle the many details and challenges involved, since it is in constant contact with this question in all its diverse dimensions.

“For this reason, when the French initiative was proposed, it was expected that Egypt would be the first Arab country to become involved. However, it took a long time about two years before any concrete action was taken. The EU did not pick up on it, as the French had desired. Nor did the US and there was no readiness on the part of Israel. Accordingly, it received little attention in Cairo or Riyadh, while the other course was maturing in a parallel direction.”

Said Okasha, an expert on the subject, discussed the French initiative and the parallel course in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The French initiative had no future at all. For it to be put into motion, all parties concerned would have to accept it. This did not happen, and for a logical reason: the initiative was proposed without first consulting with Israel," Okasha said.

"In addition, [the French initiative] was formulated along the lines of Geneva negotiations or the ideas that were conceived in the 1970s, whereas Israel prefers to make bilateral agreements, as occurred in Camp David and Wadi Araba. Israel does not want to be stripped of the advantages it gained through the bilateral agreements. Finally, Israel felt that the French initiative was couched in the framework of an ultimatum to the effect that if Israel rejects the French initiative, France would recognise the Palestinian state unilaterally. Israel does not negotiate under pressure,” Okasha added.

On the other hand, the alternative was still there.

“The Arab Initiative may form the groundwork for the coming stage,” Okasha said. “Political developments inside Israel suggest this, as do developments on the Arab side, especially with respect to Saudi Arabia, which authored the Arab Initiative.”

In this context, Okasha believes that Egypt is astute in the way it handles Israel.

“It doesn’t impose initiatives or pressure in that direction. But it is in favour of reviving the Arab Initiative with some modifications, towards which end the initiative may be brought up in the forthcoming Arab summit in Mauritania.”

Jack Khouri, an Arab- Israeli political analyst at Haaretz newspaper, told the Weekly by phone that the French have not given up on their initiative, even though their chances of bringing Netanyahu on board are very slim.

Khouri added that he has also heard from the Palestinian side remarks to the effect that the French, on their own, will never be able to get the Palestinian-Israeli ball rolling. The Americans are needed for this.

Accordingly, talk in Israel has also moved in the direction of a regional solution or a bilateral one with Arab support and brokered by Cairo and Riyadh, at a time when the US is preoccupied with the election season.

True, some expect Obama will make one last push for an American initiative before he leaves office, but there would be nothing to compel Obama’s successor to follow through, especially if the next president turns out to be Donald Trump.

Still, there have been no concrete ideas on this matter in Israel. At the same time, the political situation in Israel is confused, even if Netanyahu holds the upper hand, as the centre and left are in disarray and offer no real alternative.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Herzog appeared poised to take advantage of the opening El-Sisi made possible in order to create a new coalition that could steer the peace process issue.

However, Netanyahu proved he is not interested in a solution. He wants a lasting peace process, not a lasting peace.

*This report was first published in Ahram Weekly

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