May 26, 2015
The French initiative on Palestine: Posturing, or trying to break the deadlock?
By Joseph Bahout
Visiting Scholar, Carnegie's Middle East Program

Of all contemporary conflicts, the Israeli–Palestinian one is probably the most enduring and resistant to any resolution attempt. The conflict, more than a century old, started well before World War I and weighed heavily on international relations in a heated and dangerous manner several times after World War II and during the Cold War. It has remained a thorn in the side of international diplomatic life to this day.

All diplomatic formats have been tried, from public bilateral talks under brokerage, to secret direct negotiations between the two parties, to multilateral conferences with a strong United Nations input. More than 12 international resolutions have been passed, providing the legal framework for a solution. An exhaustive list of creative ideas has been put forward to bring about solutions to an ever-complicated equation – one that is growing more entangled with the passing of time.

Specialists and practitioners of what has become known as a “peace processing business” acknowledge that they now know what it will take to terminate the conflict: the right of both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples to live in dignity and security side by side in two states; a land-for-peace deal, which will require inventive quid pro quo negotiations to square off the difficult question of territory and space; and reparation and mutual recognition.

While it’s clear what the contours of a satisfactory, realistic, and lasting solution are, what is lacking is a true political will from both parties to jump into a deal, display the required leadership, and pay the price needed for achieving and implementing the solution.

It is in this context of incredible stagnation, where further regression threatens to ignite new fires in the Middle East, that France ­– an important yet so far lateral partner in the permanent “peace processing industry” – has put forward a bold initiative that aims to break the deadlock and accelerate progress towards the acknowledged solution.

A draft of a French UN Security Council resolution was published in a French newspaper on May 20. In it, France proposes formally recognizing an independent and definitive Palestinian State. The proposal sets an 18-month deadline for a bargained settlement that establishes a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with required land swaps, and recognizes Jerusalem as the common capital of both states. France’s plan also suggests holding an international peace conference that would crown the process before it begins.

France is trying to reverse the entire game and place the result ahead of the process. French diplomats are using classic negotiation techniques, putting players under time constraints by imposing a deadline on a process that could otherwise drag on with endless bickering.

Paris aims to break the cycle of unsuccessful face-to-face negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, as well as remove the tired and ideas-dried American broker from the equation. It also seeks to place the ball in the UN Security Council’s court in hopes that “imposed peace” will be a game changer.

Other European countries, such as the U.K., Germany, Spain, and Italy, will likely follow France’s lead, which would create a new international momentum. The United States, however, does not yet appear to be on board.

France submitted a similar draft to the UN Security Council in December, and the United States opposed it, arguing that it was bad timing as it was just before the Israeli elections.

It is understandable that the United States might be reluctant to accept France’s proposal: With this move, France appears to be stripping the United States of its longstanding role as the conflict’s main broker. However, Paris knows that U.S. acceptance is more than necessary. It seeks to provide exhausted U.S. diplomacy with a tool for division of labor: The proposed process could help the American broker convince Israel to take a bold step towards full-fledged peace, while Europe can do the same on the side of the Palestinian party.

This initiative also comes at a time when Washington, striving to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran, is eager to reassure Israel of its security. American diplomats perceive France’s move as an additional and dispensable fear factor for an already paranoid Israeli government. France may, however, be well aware of this risk: Perhaps it’s attempting to draw the world’s attention away from the current conflicts with Iran, the Gulf, and the Islamic State, using its Palestine initiative to nudge attention again towards a conflict that many still consider the mother of all others.

Joseph BahoutJoseph Bahout is a visiting scholar in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program. Previously, Bahout served as a permanent consultant for the Policy Planning Unit at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2009–2014) and a senior fellow at Académie Diplomatique Internationale (2008–2014).