France, Israel and Palestine: Same as it ever was?

The French initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peace follows a familiar pattern – and it’s outdated.

A Palestinian protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the closure of Shuhada street to Palestinians, in Hebron [REUTERS]
A Palestinian holds a placard during a demonstration against the closure of Shuhada street to Palestinians in Hebron [Reuters]

While Syria burns and great powers run towards collision there, the French government has formally put forward a new initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The three-step process (consult with both sides, convene an international support group, and convene an international summit to restart talks) is the brainchild of now former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

Despite Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya, the French government feels that this ageing conflict is central to the problems of the region and needs to be resolved. In this view, disenfranchised and occupied Palestinians remain at the heart of Arab grievance.

The proposed initiative follows a familiar pattern, and indeed some would say it is outdated. So far, there is no reason to believe it will go anywhere because the political stars are not aligned today in its favour.

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There is no real interest in it on the Israeli side, and Palestinian demands have not changed. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki has said that Palestinians will “never” return to direct talks with Israel; they naturally seek the multilateralism that France is proposing.

US won’t give up primacy

The Americans are also not likely to give up their primacy in this process to the French. Instead, Washington promises future re-engagement, possibly, a la Clinton 2000, in the narrow and tricky window between the November elections and the January presidential inauguration.

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Indeed, like the refrain from the Talking Heads song, the Israel-Palestine conflict remains “same as it ever was”. The Obama Administration is busy elsewhere: the expanding troubles in Syria and a region upending itself in new troubles every day are rather all-consuming.

The French have added a twist to their proposal: if Israel rejects it, they may recognise a Palestinian state adding to a growing international climate against occupation marked by the BDS movement.


The French have added a twist to their proposal: If Israel rejects it, they may recognise a Palestinian state adding to a growing international climate against occupation marked by the BDS movement.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the option of engaging France sufficiently, if only to buy time, until a new US president comes to office.

The Israeli prime minister may try to walk the tightrope between his right-wing base and international pressure until a president closer to his liking and inclinations enters the scene.

The deeper problem with this initiative is the gap between the salons and the situation on the ground. In Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, the situation remains perilous.

Lack of political horizon

The lack of political horizon is a breeding ground for violence, and despite illusions, the Israeli PM cannot keep the situation fully contained. This is why some Israeli officials, including some in the defence and security sectors, are encouraging a more serious engagement with the French.

The same gap between reality on the ground and talk tragically applies in Syria where the Geneva talks were abruptly interrupted by air strikes by one of its sponsors, alongside a bold military move by one of the protagonists.

Such interruptions are sadly reminiscent of destructive actions in Israel and Palestine in the 1990s that regularly upset the apple cart of negotiations and ultimately cast them into the dustbin.

Former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius [REUTERS]
Former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius [REUTERS]

Under such conditions, why would the French put it forward at this time? Some point to the ego of a departing foreign minister who wished to leave a legacy behind, or the vestigial legacy of a waning power pining to play a role.

Less cynically, it may simply be a real belief by the French government that the question of Israel and Palestine needs to be resolved.

However, if this wish cannot be translated into results or influence the grander scheme, it will deteriorate into yet another endless and fruitless process – and therein lies the rub.

The lessons from Syria abound. On that file, some have already stated that “diplomacy that perpetually, and falsely holds out the prospect of imminent progress can end up providing cover and an excuse for inaction”.

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This may not be the French intention, but there may be plenty of diplomatic room for an Israeli prime minister to have yet another “excuse for inaction” towards a permanent solution.


Diplomacy can be a very attractive process. It has the virtue of being “jaw jaw” rather than “war war”, and it is often seductive to those involved because if feels as if something exciting and high level is going on, even when nothing is. It can also always be excused by the compelling argument that it is always better to try rather than not.

Diplomacy is handmaiden of policy

However, the gap between the lakesides in Geneva and the hells of Homs or the darkness in Hebron can be vast. A process that neither reflects realities nor connects to them risks consequential failure: After Camp David 2000, an Intifada broke out; after US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent attempt on Israel-Palestine, violence broke out, including in Jerusalem and Gaza.

After expectations are raised and unmet, even subtly, there are reactions; diplomacy is not without its consequences.

Traditional diplomacy ... works when the situation on the ground is ripe enough for the sides to put aside war for politics...


The reality is also that diplomacy is inevitably the handmaiden of policy. If there is no policy, as in the case of the US over Syria, then the implication is clear: Diplomacy is only a process that can be used or abused by those with clearer policies, for better or worse.

Traditional diplomacy (not the preventive variety) works when the situation on the ground is ripe enough for the sides to put aside war for politics, or when there is enough goodwill or political will in the highest circles to make the crucial difference.

Otherwise, diplomacy is often part and parcel of a larger strategy that includes changing conditions on the ground.

It is Russia and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the Israeli government in the West Bank and Jerusalem that have cynically but effectively used this approach. Settlements grow, Assad gains ground, while diplomats talk – even sometimes because diplomats talk instead of their countries taking action.

Whether the French have a clear and sustainable policy in this case remains to be seen. It may well be that the French are serious about recognition of a Palestinian state should their initiative be rejected by Israel.

That, at least would be a policy with some teeth. It may also be that the French initiative may coopt the Israeli prime minister into a process where he has to make concessions that he was previously unwilling to consider. Or, more grandly, it is a step on the march towards summoning sufficient international pressure to resolve the problem.

The jury is out and the initiative may be worth a try. As some great and many trite philosophers have promised, process is a natural part of life. However, in a conflict that has gone on for over four generations, what Israelis and Palestinians need are results – and a sense of clear responsibility (and policy) by those pursuing diplomatic action.

John Bell is director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as a political adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.