For nearly fifty years the accepted mantra has been that only direct face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can yield a mutually acceptable settlement. That formula has been tested to destruction.
It founders on two jagged obstacles. One is the basic Palestinian ethos, consistently promulgated through the media and in the classroom, that the very presence of Israel is anathema. All political parties subscribe to the aim of eventually regaining Mandate Palestine complete, “from the river to the sea”. Hamas and Fatah differ only on the method by which this desirable objective is to be achieved. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel at all and champions the armed struggle; Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), chooses to give lip service to the concept of the two-state solution – but only as a first step towards the final goal. But no PA leader dare take that first step and sign a peace agreement with Israel. The political backlash would be too great, and he would be lucky to escape with his life.
So however close in their direct negotiations with Israel Yasser Arafat, and later Mahmoud Abbas, came to achieving a fully-fledged sovereign Palestine, actually signing off on an agreement proved a step too far. The Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, the Camp David negotiations of 2000, the intensive wheeling and dealing of 2007 – all finally came to naught.
The second apparently insurmountable barrier follows from this: the maximum that Israel is able to offer in face-to-face negotiations is less than the minimum the Palestinians are able to accept – whatever that minimum, if it exists, may be.
In short, direct bargaining between Israel and the Palestinians is a busted flush. Is there a viable alternative route leading away from a bleak future of endless conflict?
Yair Lapid, chairman of Israel’s Yesh Atid party, believes : “The only way to achieve the two-state solution is to give up on direct talks and manage the negotiations through a regional conference supported by the United States.” His idea has been gathering support from members of Israel’s Labour, Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Kulanu and Meretz parties.
Its rationale is that the Palestinian leadership alone is incapable of making the compromises needed to reach a deal with Israel, especially regarding Israel’s security. The PA, political writer Dov Lipman recently maintained, can and will make the necessary compromises only in the context of a regional solution in which Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states give it the backing – or force it – to do so. The motivation for these “moderate” states to pressure the Palestinians has, Lipman maintains, increased significantly following the completion of the Iranian deal, which emphasises their community of interest with Israel in confronting extremist Islam in the form of a potentially nuclear armed Iran, and with Islamic State (IS) spreading across the region.
It may come as a revelation to some that the idea of a broadly based peace conference is backed by Israel’s prime minister. In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2014, Benjamin Netanyahu advanced the concept of a working alliance between Israel and those Arab states opposed to militant Islamists in general, and IS and Iran in particular.
“After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy,” he declared, “leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that, together, we and they face many of the same dangers. Principally this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. Our challenge is to transform these common interests to create a productive partnership – one that would build a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East.”
He was on thin ice. However willing some Arab governments may be to enter into a recognised relationship with Israel, they would find difficulty in carrying popular opinion with them. Netanyahu of course understands this, but he soldiered on, in effect inviting the active involvement of Arab countries into the peace process.
“Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. But these days I think it may work the other way around – namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
To achieve that peace, he asserted, not only Jerusalem and Ramallah need be involved, but also Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere.
This position is not so very far from the initiative recently announced by France. As a former colonial power, France has long seen itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. As far back as August 2009, when newly-elected US President Obama was clearly eager to re-launch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to host an international conference to facilitate the peace process, going so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.
In January 2010, as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. The concept of a Paris-located international conference reappeared last December, when France took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius played the same tune, with minor variations, in his recent visit to the Middle East – a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process, with backing from an “international support group” formed by the EU, Arab nations and UN Security Council members.
More recently, Paris seems to be having second thoughts about the resolution, though not about a possible conference. Having met with Fabius in Cairo, PA foreign minister Fiyad al-Maliki, speaking on Voice of Palestine radio on July 7, said: “I can say that the idea of the French draft resolution in the Security Council is not a main topic for decision makers in France anymore.” However, said Maliki, still uppermost in their minds was a negotiations support committee comprised of representatives of the UN Security Council, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
As for the possible US reaction to this French initiative, President Obama is holding his cards close to his chest, but some remember the rumours of April 2013 – never wholly quashed – that the US favoured a multi-national peace conference. Given Netanyahu’s own words on the concept, Washington and Jerusalem may be preparing a somewhat surprising response.