With the Middle East peace process lying dead in the water for two years, what harm could come from an effort led by France to revive talks between Israel and the Palestinians? The answer is that, whenever one thinks things can’t get worse, the reality of this conflict is always there to remind us that yes, things can always get worse. Moreover, they almost always do when even the best-intended people try to pretend that another conference or paper or the right negotiator can solve a problem that has nothing to do with forums, resolutions or even skillful diplomacy.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will arrive in Israel this weekend to try to lay the groundwork for a new peace initiative. But Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu deserves no blame for rejecting the French formula. It’s not just that Paris’s plan smacks of international coercion that is both deeply unfair to Israel. Nor is the biggest problem here the fact that similar schemes with analogous formulas have already been tried and failed.
The real problem is that the French, like the Americans, the United Nations and the “Diplomatic Quartet” that have trod this path before, are focusing on form rather than confronting substance. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians will come the day the latter gives up their century-old war on Zionism and put to rest their opposition to a Jewish state.
If the goal is to get closer to that moment, the French plan is an absurd waste of time. Indeed, the fact that the Palestinians have welcomed the scheme illustrates what’s wrong with it. Having torpedoed the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry two years ago and refusing every entreaty to return to the table since then, it’s hardly surprising that the Palestinians would like a plan that starts with an international conclave convened by the French to where neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will be present.
That sort of diplomacy smacks of an international diktat where nations that are either neutral or hostile to Israel will seek to impose terms on it that compromise both its security and rights. Instead of a negotiation in which the two sides will be forced to recognize each other’s legitimacy, such a process is a one-sided attempt merely to orchestrate another Israeli territorial retreat in which it will be asked to trade land for the hope of peace. Moreover, is there any reason for Israel to trust nations that, like France, voted for a recent UNESCO resolution that didn’t even recognize historic Jewish ties to holy sites in Jerusalem such as the Western Wall or the Temple Mount?
But even if we lay aside the obvious unsuitability of any plan that is so skewed against the Israelis even before it begins, Netanyahu’s rejection makes sense because the premise of the negotiation is false. The French and the international community that appears to be supporting their initiative act as if the last 23 years of history hadn’t happened. Must we remind them that Israel has already placed on the table the same terms that peace process advocates always speak of being the solution that “everyone knows” will be the way to end the conflict? Is it really necessary to point out that the Palestinians said no to those terms — independence and a state that includes almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem — in 2000, 2001, and 2008? Must we point out that since the last of those offers that sent Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas fleeing from the negotiating table, he has refused to negotiate seriously even when Netanyahu offered in the Kerry talks to leave the West Bank?
Obviously, the answer is yes to all three questions.
But even if anyone thought Abbas would give a different answer to peace than he has previously provided, no one in Paris or in any of the other foreign capitals where this proposal is being discussed is anyone taking into account the fact that Abbas doesn’t speak for all of the Palestinians. Two million of them live in Gaza from which Israel withdrew every soldier, settler and settlement in 2005, and which is now ruled as an independent Palestinian state in all but name by Hamas terrorists. How can even a theoretical deal that grants sovereignty to the PA make any sense so long as Hamas is in place in Gaza and might well expand their rule to the West Bank once Israel does the international community’s bidding?
The answer is that it doesn’t. The only answer that would make sense would be for Abbas to accept Netanyahu’s oft-stated offer of a resumption of direct negotiations that he repeated this week while, again, accepting the idea of two states for two peoples. But that can’t happen so long as Abbas refuses to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its boundaries would be drawn. And he won’t do that because Palestinian public opinion is unalterably opposed to such a formulation. Until a sea change in their political culture permits him or a successor to end the century-long war on Zionism and the Jewish presence in any part of the country that is inextricably tied to Palestinian national identity.
The French, President Obama and Netanyahu all ought to know that if the Palestinians were ever to accept peace on terms that end the conflict for all time, there is no Israeli leader that could successfully resist such a peace plan. The majority of Israelis would give up settlements and even perhaps some of their capital for peace. Building in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs that Israel would keep in the event of peace is no obstacle to a deal. Yet instead of dealing with Palestinian intransigence, the French, like President Obama, focus on their antagonism with Netanyahu.
That is problematic not just because it achieves nothing to get the region closer to peace. It’s foolish because it only encourages the Palestinians to think they won’t have to make the concessions they need to make if they really want two states instead of merely eliminating Israel. Every failed peace effort has led to a new round of violence, and this one won’t be an exception. It’s time for diplomats to realize that, like doctors, their primary responsibility is to do no harm. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that no one tempted by the glory of making the ultimate deal (attention: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) ought to forget.