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The Paris peace conference?

Today’s meeting of foreign ministers in Paris ended with a statement reaffirming “that a negotiated two-state solution is the only way to achieve an enduring peace”. The participants expressed “alarm” in the document, “that actions on the ground, in particular continued acts of violence and ongoing settlement activity, are dangerously imperilling the prospects for a two-state solution”. It was also interesting, however, to see the word ‘fully’ in-front of “ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967”. Maybe to resurrect the old debate about the wording variations between the French version of UNSC 242 that stipulated that Israel must withdraw “from the territories occupied”, and the English versions that just said ‘from territories occupied’.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, but of more significance in terms of moving forward with the peace process than the outcome of today has been the political manoeuvrings of two non-invitees – the protagonists of the conflict itself, Israel and the Palestinians. Events in Israel have over-shadowed the limited momentum of this conference. It started when political rumours, later confirmed by PM Benjamin Netanyahu, suggested that the prime minister was willing to make serious progress on the Palestinian front with the possibility of Labor Party Leader Isaac Herzog joining the Government. Then, Egyptian President al-Sisi publicly declared his support for the centre-left to join a broad unity government in Israel and endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative (API). To cut a long story short, Israelis went to bed with left-leaning Herzog as a possible new Foreign Minister but woke up with right-leaning Avidgor Lieberman as their new Defence Minister.

Meanwhile, in the Palestinian camp, President Abbas was continuing full steam ahead with his agenda to internationalise the peace process, in order to “equalise power between Israel and Palestine,” according to Saed Erekat, the secretary general of the PLO. And this is really what today’s peace conference was all about. From a Palestinian perspective, it represents: a) a smaller role of the US from chief mediator to mere participant (although the French did postpone the original date in order for US Secretary of State John Kerry to attend); and b) finding the widest possible forum for sympathetic voices on the Palestinian side to gain a more favourable agreement.

The impact of today’s conference has both negative and positive implications for the peace process. One positive aspect is where the statement highlights “the importance of the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative”. This might have been added in part to assuage PM Netanyahu’s and Lieberman’s recent announcements of support for certain elements in the API, which does provide a better, and more relevant, platform for the necessary partners to a final agreement. If the French initiative can boost or support a framework between Israel and certain Arab States then it might be useful after all.

However, Israel is unlikely to wield to the Palestinian demand of bringing more voices around a negotiating table on what is already an extremely complicated issue. Adding more players will not produce a solution to the conflict any sooner. Moreover, PM Netanyahu is correct in saying that the only way to end the conflict is by direct, bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This conference is dangerously close to steering the process away from bilateralism, as well as bolstering Abbas’s misplaced confidence in his internationalisation campaign, which has already produced poor returns – note the lack of progress post International Criminal Court membership, and the failure of Abbas to get the UN Security Council to vote on a resolution calling for a freeze of Israeli settlements in 2011 and earlier this year.

PM Netanyahu now finds himself between a rock (a more confident Abbas) and a hard place (a right-wing government unwilling to concede ground on the Palestinian issue in the face of violence and Palestinian intransigence). Eager not to be forced into somewhere he does not want to be by international forces, whilst trying to counteract those forces with a ‘partner’ in Abbas who is leading them, PM Netanyahu will have to tread carefully between keeping ahead of international efforts on the peace process, while keeping his coalition together.

Samuel Nurding is Research Analyst at BICOM