Blog Post - Council on Foreign Relations Press
Paved With Good Intentions? France's Middle East Peace Conference
The Madrid peace conference in 1991 to launch comprehensive Arab-Israeli negotiations was a diplomatic triumph. The 2007 Annapolis conference relaunched peace-making and a new, well-prepared three track security, economic, and political process on pre-negotiated terms of reference just a few years after the violent second Intifada. These were important moments—historically, and diplomatically.
Despite best intentions, the 2017 Paris peace conference was neither historic nor constructive. The meeting was both poorly timed and ill-prepared, such that the two main parties—the Israelis and Palestinians—stayed away. Even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was otherwise occupied. The absence of the two main protagonists to the conflict was the least of it. The meeting simply underlined outdated thinking that, left uncorrected, will harm future international diplomatic efforts to deliver peace to the Holy Land.
In an article penned several days ago for the Israeli daily Haaretz, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault laid out several core reasons for the conference: Ayrault argued that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, left unattended, will “continue to fuel frustration and will ultimately only worsen the vicious cycle of radicalization and violence. It will continue to give budding terrorists excuses for enlisting.” The dubious implication is that heinous and deadly terrorist attacks and violence unleashed recently in Cairo, Baghdad, and Istanbul—not to mention Damascus, Aleppo, and Raqaa—were the product of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Further justifying the conference he wrote, “I have a very strong conviction…that only a two-state solution will in time bring stability to the region and enable Israel to live in security.” This statement is rooted in thinking from an era, long passed, when the Israeli-Arab conflict was the primary source of regional instability. Moreover, it implies, that former colonial powers such as France know better than Middle Easterners themselves what is in their best interests.
This sheer arrogance was remarkably explicit in the conference final communique yesterday in which the participants expressed their expectation of how the democratically elected Israeli and Palestinian governments should relate to their own government’s officials: The conference “participants expect (emphasis added) both sides to restate their commitment to the two-state solution, and to disavow official voices on their side that reject this solution.”
Israeli and Palestinian leaders were explicitly called upon yesterday to disavow their own officials whose policy preferences are deemed disagreeable to the Paris conferees. This type of call to intervene in the domestic politics of a democratically elected government is what led British Prime Minister Theresa May to chastise Secretary of State Kerry’s valedictory peace speech several weeks’ ago. It may even explain, at least in part, why the British government limited its representation at the Paris conference to that of observer.
Saving Israelis and Palestinians from their leaders is clearly what France had in mind for their conference. As French minister Ayrault put it, “promises of peace from both sides have disappeared and have been replaced by mistrust, resignation, and even false hope that the current situation can go on indefinitely. Saving the two state solution and safeguarding a future of peace and prosperity for peoples in the region is why the international community has decided to take action with the impetus of France.”
But experience demonstrates that Western appeals to Middle Eastern peoples over the heads of their governments doesn’t work. President Obama delivered a pitch-perfect speech in Jerusalem to Israelis in 2013 on the virtues of peace that had no discernible effect. Secretary of State John Kerry lectured Israelis and Palestinians about the need to take immediate action for four years—all with no result. Why Ayrault believes Israelis and Palestinians would want to listen to the French government, rather than their own leaders, is unclear.
It is tempting to dismiss the Paris meeting as simply a harmless, yet heroic, effort to advance the noble cause of Middle East peace. But does it make sense for significant amounts of taxpayer euros and dollars to be devoted to a pointless conference when Europe and the Middle East are host to the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II? Against the backdrop of over a million recently displaced Middle Easterners, not a single Palestinian or Israeli life was enhanced by yesterday’s conference. Nor was the cause of Palestine, Israel, or peace between them, in any way advanced.
The Paris conference squandered another precious and vital asset to the peaceful conduct of nations: diplomatic capital. Each time world leaders stand before microphones and espouse the need for Middle East peace without actually doing anything about it, the more they debase the currency of diplomacy, and the more they undermine the faith among Israelis and Palestinians that statecraft—appropriately prepared and pursued—can ever help the cause of peace. Trust among Israelis and Palestinians in the possibility of peace is further eroded by ill-timed and ill-conceived diplomatic efforts that seem more designed to express international moral outrage than to produce actual results.
International meetings to help Israelis and Palestinians prepare conditions for peace can be constructive. But to be helpful, they must be pursued in ways that are considered legitimate to both parties to the conflict under dispute. A basic prerequisite for all diplomatic efforts—one that French, American and other diplomats have refused to accept recently—is that the views and positions of the protagonists to the conflict need to be taken into account for progress to be made.
If would-be peace-makers conclude that the parties themselves are not prepared to offer such views, or make necessary concessions, then diplomatic assets should not be wasted for a certain bad outcome. Better to focus instead on the tedious and unglamorous type of spadework that seeks to prepare the ground for a time when high-level conferences can actually help. This type of daily diplomacy never makes it into the headlines, but it is far more critical right now to explore what limited steps might be possible to help prepare conditions for a time when the parties are actually ready and empowered to negotiate in earnest.
It’s not hard to see that neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli governments right now are positioned to move forward toward the two-state peace that the conveners of yesterday’s meeting seek. If nothing else, the peripatetic efforts of outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry have provided a real-world experiment that tested the hypothesis that international goodwill and hard work can prevail upon the Israelis and Palestinians to make concession that they are not prepared to make. This reality makes Paris’ call for a return to negotiations right now not only pointless, but misguided. It is not the message that international leaders should be sending to a new American president who takes office later this week.