It’s a remarkable time to be alive. The affairs of men seem to be in the grip of some bizarre energumen, predictable only in the sense that we can count on strange interludes and stranger outcomes. These are not the conditions one would prefer to face a French-sponsored conference on “Middle East peace” in.
But here we are. France is hosting the conference on Sunday, 15 January. Some 70 nations are to send high-level representatives – including the U.S., which is sending John Kerry. When the conference is over he will have less than 120 hours left in office. It’s certain that his presumed successor, Rex Tillerson, and President Trump will take office next Friday with a substantially different perspective on the conference’s topic, Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. But France is determined to hold the conference now, and the Obama administration is determined to participate as if it has discretion over the future of U.S. policy at this point.
Notably, French President Francois Hollande is also on the way out. He will step down in May, after France’s national election, and it’s very likely that his old-guard socialist government will be replaced by a much different, more right-wing government.
France, like the rest of Europe, has destabilizing security problems today on a scale not seen since World War II. But Hollande and his foreign office have a boresight trained on “Israel and the Palestinian Arabs” as the issue for Middle East peace. And of all the things he could be doing, the one he is bent on at all costs is holding this 70-nation conference, this weekend.
An outdated geopolitical idea
We should pause to note, as well, that in 2017, there is something bizarrely driven, even nutty, about the “Israel-Palestinian Arabs” focus for the matter of Middle East peace. Israel and the West Bank territories of Judea and Samaria – in fact, even Gaza – are actually an island of stability right now in a wildly chaotic region. Since January 2011, only Jordan and Saudi Arabia among their near neighbors have avoided at least one of the following: coups, civil wars, collapses of internal order, armed invasion. (And Saudi Arabia, while not invaded, has nevertheless faced border incursions and cross-border missile attacks from Yemen.) But Israel has avoided them all, and managed to keep Gaza from getting out of hand.
Iran and ISIS are the big menaces to Middle East peace in 2017, with the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman Islamist cohort emerging right behind them. It actually makes no sense now to set “Israel and the Palestinian Arabs” as the centerpiece for deliberations on Middle East peace, when they so manifestly are not the driving catalyst of instability.
But France and the conferencing nations are determined to take “Israel-Palestinian Arabs” as their peace premise. So it is extra-surreal that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority’s representatives will be attending the conference on Sunday. As Israel’s Tzipi Hotovely put it, it’s like holding a wedding ceremony without the bride or the groom.
For public consumption, Israel is taking a sanguine view of the conference – basically assuming that it can’t amount to much. And we can certainly hope not. But given the rapid succession of extraordinary events over the last year, and the hell-bent determination of the nations gathering for the conference, there is no justification for making assumptions one way or the other. In a sign of this most remarkable time, it really isn’t possible to handicap this one.
The basics of the conference plan
What specific attempts might be made at the conference, and what might the outcome(s) be? Lori Lowenthal Marcus has a good preview at Jewish Press. The conference is expected to put out a statement affirming that a peace settlement must be based on a “two-state solution,” and that both sides must not only commit to that as their goal, but pledge to disavow any dissident voices from within their own governments.
The other key point from the draft conference statement is that the border between the two states will be the 1949 Armistice Line (what Abba Eban famously called the “Auschwitz lines,” because a border on this line is indefensible).
This interesting document thus dictates the terms of a settlement to the absent parties. But it also proclaims, disingenuously, that the parties mustn’t have anything imposed on them.
Lowenthal Marcus reports that some well-connected activists say there is a plan to introduce a UN resolution on 17 January (the first working day of the new session), immediately after the Paris conference reports out (see here as well). This is where things get murky. In the worst case, such a resolution might proclaim a Palestinian state and set up a chain of diplomatic recognitions by UN members.
I truly don’t think this one can be predicted with any certainty. But, that said, I suspect the immediate proclamation of a Palestinian state is further than the UN would be prepared to go. In fact, based on his and Kerry’s rhetoric up to now, Obama would probably exercise the U.S. veto over that one.
However, there are measures short of proclaiming a state that might get a U.S. abstention on the Security Council – if they were worded with sufficient allusions to condemning Palestinian Arab terrorism. Making sure to condemn terrorism is what the Kerry State Department has said is its criterion for deeming a UN resolution to be “balanced,” and not anti-Israel.
Walking a fine line to put Israel on the hook?
Two measures that come to mind are (a) setting a deadline for Israel to accept (“negotiate”) a Palestinian state on the terms dictated by the Paris conference; and (b) following up on UNSCR 2334 from December to impose sanctions on Israel, if she won’t cease construction in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and in the settlements in Judea and Samaria.
Either measure would be destabilizing to the region, because they would both compromise respect for Israeli sovereignty and security requirements. If adopted in some form, they might or might not be incendiary enough to provoke a major break with longstanding U.S. policy on the UN, once Trump takes office on 20 January. Their long-term impact in that regard isn’t cut and dried.
But there are reasons to focus on these possibilities, because rhetoric from some relevant quarters actually points to them.
Proposition (b) – sanctions if Israel doesn’t stop new neighborhood construction – has been previewed in very specific terms in recent months by a group of former French ambassadors, veterans of the foreign service. Their vision was outlined this week by Yves Mamou for the Gatestone Institute. Says Mamou:
They [the French ambassadors] are not precise about what “sanctions” would be. But in an earlier op-ed, published on February 3, 2016, the same group of retired French ambassadors gave some examples of their wishes.
- Immediate recognition of the State of Palestine by France and all countries of the European Union.
- A suspension of the association agreement between the European Union and Israel.
- The end of economic and scientific cooperation between the European Union and Israel.
A measure like this one might not even have to involve the UN. It would be hard to craft it as something the UN could vote on quickly next week. But as a threat from the EU, it could be set in motion without giving President Trump a ready way to block or undo it later. It would also not require the concurrence of either the UK – already on the path to Brexit – or Russia, both of which have delayed committing to sending their actual foreign ministers (Boris Johnson and Sergei Lavrov) to the conference. (At latest report, Johnson will be there.)
If Asharq al-Awsat’s information is good, France may not even aspire to do that much, at this point. According to the media outlet’s report, “the French idea of the conference resulting with a new resolution has been ended and abandoned,” and a concluding statement is all that is envisioned.
But the caution here would be that everyone thought UNSCR 2334 was dead on 21 December, when Egypt decided not to call for the Security Council vote on it. Less than 48 hours later, four other countries got it voted on and adopted. So we can’t count on anything from one day to the next.
A deadline process
That brings us back to proposition (a): setting a deadline for Israel to capitulate to the terms of the Paris conference statement. This measure could be set up as a process through the UN: something the UN committed to pursuing – remaining “seized of,” to use the diplomatic language of UNSCR 2334 – without even having to name an actual deadline by the end of next week. Just starting the process of coming up with one would be enough to gain prejudicial leverage over Israel’s security and geopolitical situation, and perhaps in an ingeniously semi-permanent way.
(There’s a temptation to joke that the UN might even turn to John Kerry, fresh out of a job, to oversee the UN-sponsored process.)
Interestingly, since late December, Mahmoud Abbas has been talking about wanting to see a timetable set for “Palestinian independence.” He made a key point of that in a major speech after the UNSCR 2334 vote, and his spokesmen have reiterated it – along with the hope for diplomatic recognition from France and other EU nations – in the weeks since.
Abbas himself will participate in a signal PR demonstration on Friday, 13 January, when he inaugurates the new PA “embassy” at the Vatican. He may not attend the Paris conference in an official capacity, but he’ll visit with the Pope on Friday, and with Hollande on Saturday, and open a highly symbolic diplomatic mission just as the conference starts.
Abbas’s hope for recognition from France is something Hollande could satisfy without involving the UN. But as the former French ambassadors suggest, the real objective would be to generate momentum for a recognition movement among the nations. My sense is that France doesn’t foresee such momentum kicking in literally next week. But driving down the stake of a UN deadline process would give the prospect of momentum something concrete to coalesce around – even after Donald Trump has taken office in the United States.
If I tried to predict, I would say France and the other like-minded nations will want to get done the maximum that’s feasible by the end of next week, without attempting something so explosive that the incoming Trump administration will have to burn bridges over it. Something that sets up a process for holding weasel-worded performance deadlines over Israel would seem to fill that bill.
But calm calculation isn’t the prevailing pattern right now. Every other day, on average, we see the world’s actors careening into danger as if goaded by a lash.
An emerging factor: Cyprus
I would highlight one additional data point before concluding, which is that over on the sideline, with little attention on it, the contentious matter of a divided Cyprus seems to be edging closer than it’s been in 40 years to being resolved.
This is by no means unrelated to Israel. In fact – don’t doubt me on this, as Rush Limbaugh likes to say – the growing ties between Israel, Cyprus, and Greece are a major part of what’s driving Turkey’s unprecedented willingness to negotiate difficult points. (Russia’s and Iran’s intervention in Syria is the other part of it.) Being in a process with Cyprus and Greece is the best way for Turkey to gain leverage over their relations with Israel – a dynamic that affects much more than undersea oil and gas, and indeed extends to Israel’s entire security situation (and to Syria’s as well).
While the Muslim/Middle Eastern geopolitical vectors toward Israel have been whirling like crazy over the last six years, the main vector from the EU toward Israel, which runs through Cyprus, has remained in relative stasis. But that is probably about to change. President Trump, for his part, wouldn’t want to reject a mutually satisfactory resolution to the Cyprus problem, nor would he be able to. This one will basically happen without the U.S.
But it would profoundly affect Israel’s regional standing and security picture. As the world moves away from the Pax Americana, the nations of Europe will perceive ways of maneuvering that haven’t been in play for a very long time – and moves that will be useful now, that wouldn’t have been just a few years ago.
Maybe we’ll all get lucky, and the nations at the Paris conference won’t grope their way toward the most effective possible maneuver next week. I’d like nothing more than for this entire post to be moot. But the last time that happened was between 21 and 23 December, and it wasn’t because things turned out well. I’m not betting on anything at this point.