As representatives of 70 nations gather in Paris today to discuss the moribund Middle East peace process, a healthy dose of scepticism is in order. Not so much about the conference’s prospects for success – it is not designed to succeed beyond the fact of being convened and producing a communique – but rather about the purpose of this exercise.
According to its French conveners, the objective of the conference is to reaffirm the international community’s collective commitment to a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, presumably with an eye towards the incoming Trump administration, emphasise that there is no alternative to this paradigm.
A serious commitment to such an objective could take several paths: Putting political flesh on the bones of the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution, 2334. The resolution condemns all Israeli settlement activity as illegal and calls upon member states to distinguish in their dealings between Israel and the occupied territories; collectively recognising Palestinian statehood; and/or determining that the Oslo agreements, and more broadly the formula of bilateral negotiations without preconditions under American auspices, has endangered, rather than promoted, a two-state settlement.
In other words, a conference that does not put the Israeli occupation and mechanisms for ending it front and centre of its deliberations does not really qualify as an international conference on promoting a two-state settlement.
A conference that does not put the Israeli occupation and mechanisms for ending it front and centre of its deliberations does not really qualify as an international conference on promoting a two-state settlement.
The conference’s draft communique would, in this respect, be laughable, were it not so tragic. Its preamble, for example, lauds Secretary of State John Kerry’s 28 December 2016 speech on the Middle East, which in significant respects seeks to water down not only key provisions of UNSC 2334, but also the prevailing international consensus on the question of Palestine.
More importantly, it specifically and exclusively references Kerry’s statement that, 23 years after Oslo, there is no role for the international community in ending the occupation and consummating a two-state settlement beyond coaxing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
If the French hosts indeed endorse the trope that “we cannot want peace more than the parties themselves”, and, in view of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s furious denunciation of the conference, and clear preference of creeping annexation over Palestinian statehood, one wonders why Paris has gone to the trouble of convening this meeting at all.
To the extent that the communique can be said to make demands of the international community, it is purely declarative and does not go one iota beyond what is already expressed in UNSC 2334 and similar resolutions, and therefore already binding on conference participants as a matter of international law.
The communique reaches the highest levels of absurdity in its approach to Israel and the Palestinians.
Its concluding paragraphs call upon “both sides to restate their commitment to the two-state solution, and to disavow official voices on their side that reject this solution”, as if not only the Israeli government, but also its Palestinian counterpart, is teeming with voices demanding exclusive sovereignty from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan.
More to the point, what difference would it make if Israeli ministers followed Netanyahu’s lead and expressed verbal support for this formula, while losing no opportunity to undermine it in practise?
To be fair, the Paris Conference does throw its massive weight behind the actualisation of its proclaimed objective: Paragraph II offers “economic incentives and increased private sector involvement”, “further meetings between international partners and the Palestinian side” to strengthen Palestinian institutions, and of course “Israeli and Palestinian civil society fora”. C’est tout.
Those who believe the self-interest of the international community, and particularly Western governments, will eventually produce a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are expected – in all likelihood – to be deeply impressed that Paris has managed to convene 70 governments, including the outgoing US secretary of state to sign off on this damp squib, and hope it may yet produce a new Security Council resolution before the White House turns orange.
More realistic proponents of Palestinian self-determination will immediately recognise that a half-century of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not going to be meaningfully addressed by international meetings. Unless the conditions have first been created by the Palestinians themselves to make those meetings productive. This could happen through mobilising all the resources at their disposal, both inside Palestine and in the diaspora, and by effectively mobilising all those who support their cause.
It is a tall order with no alternative.