The French literally rolled out the red carpet on Friday for an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference meeting in Paris. Two key players, notably, were not invited: the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The final communiqué approved by the mainly American, European, and Arab delegations in attendance evinced only the usual boilerplate tut-tutting that the Middle East status quo is “not sustainable.” But hey, at least all those careworn diplomats got to spend a restorative Friday in Paris, right?
While from its very announcement the French conference wasn’t expected to yield much, it did prompt one notable response from Netanyahu’s government earlier last week which, in turn, reveals much about the emerging alliances in the Middle East. The Financial Times reports:
“The Arab peace initiative includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians,” Mr Netanyahu said late on Monday, shortly after Mr Lieberman was sworn in. “We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002, but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples.”
The plan, backed by the Arab League, has been revisited periodically as a blueprint for a peace agreement in the 12 years since it was first floated. It offers Israel diplomatic recognition in exchange for withdrawal from land it seized in the 1967 Six Day War and a “just settlement” for Palestinian refugees.
Israel has never endorsed it in its original form but indicated it might do so with amendments in areas such as refugees and land swaps.
This was some savvy pre-conference positioning for Netanyahu and his new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman. More or less endorsing the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative allowed them to stave off domestic and international criticism that the government is not interested in securing a settlement with the Palestinians. Indeed, the communiqué issued after the Paris conference echoed support for the the initiative, strengthening the Israelis’ position. This also provides cover for Arab leaders like President Sisi of Egypt who will have to defend their relationship with Israel to a skeptical audience at home.
The best hope for peace in the Middle East is not coming from France but rather from the emerging entente between Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The last two countries, despite having never recognized Israeli sovereignty, enjoy growing commercial ties with Israel. Iran’s regional ambitions have bolstered an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend logic that brings the Saudi-led coalition into alignment with Israeli security interests. Earning diplomatic recognition from these countries remains a strategic priority for Israel.
It is not inconceivable that some sort of peace agreement could be reached including land swaps in the West Bank in exchange for diplomatic recognition from the Saudis and Emiratis. As Aaron David Miller noted earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, if any agreement between Netanyahu and Abbas is to be reached, it would most likely be along these lines. What remains most likely, however, is that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo will endure, perhaps with some improvements in conditions in the West Bank as a result of the alignment of Israeli and Arab interests; with Hamas firmly ensconced in Gaza, there is little reason to expect improvement on that front.