French well-intentioned Mideast initiative faces major obstacles

By John Keating

PARIS, June 2 (KUNA) — France cannot be accused of lacking diplomatic commitment in seeking to unblock the “total impasse” in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process especially with the organisation of the ministerial conference on this issue in Paris on Friday, a act showcasing the European country’s effort to become the process’s prominent broker, experts and analysts say.
Yet, there are many obstacles in the way of carrying this French initiative forward, not least the absence of the Israelis and Palestinians at this stage, but also ongoing hesitation on the part of United States as regards ceding any pre-eminence over affairs affecting Washington’s staunch ally, Israel. This is particularly pertinent as the US heads into an election year.
Nonetheless, analysts appear split on the merits – and chances of success – of the French initiative.
“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,” says Jospeh Bahout, a Middle East expert and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Bahout, a former member of the French Diplomatic Academy and a renowned academic here, said in a commentary to KUNA that other European countries like the UK, Germany, Spain, and Italy “will likely follow France’s lead.” But he cautioned that the French plan, which is centered around the UN Security Council, and which calls for the implication of Arab countries, has already been rejected in an earlier form by the United States, which blocked a pertinent UN Security Council draft over a year ago.
“France appears to be stripping the United States of its long-standing role as the conflict’s main broker,” Bahout wrote. “However, Paris knows that US acceptance is more than necessary” for this initiative which has taken almost two years to come to fruition in the form of the ministerial meeting.
But France can claim credit for having gathered all members of the UN Security Council and a number of other important players under the same roof to do “a diagnosis” of the situation and map out potential frameworks to move forward, even with a possible timetable for summit talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
In addition to Security Council members, several regional nations will attend: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, among others. Several European heayweights like the UK, Germany and Italy will be among the 20 or so countries attending. The meeting also has the backing of a strong institutional input: The UN, the Arab League, the Quartet and the European Union.
France has invested a lot of diplomatic collateral in the June meeting, sending Prime Minister Manuel Valls to the region in May to follow up on a “difficult” visit for Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who was not received with open arms by Prime Minsiter Binjamin Netanyahu, who showed him “thinly-veiled hostility” over the French initiative.
The Israeli leader, who is once again integrating extreme-rightists into his government, notably in the form of Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has tried to sabotage the French initiative by proposing face-to-face talks with the Palestinian leadership – talks that he curiously offered to hold in Paris.
One former French ambassador to the region and expert on Middle East affairs called that offer “political gesticulation.” Speaking to KUNA on condition of anonymity because the June 3 meeting has not taken place, he said he was “very skeptical” that the Paris meeting could break “this most total of impasses.” He noted the Israeli and Palestinian sides were getting even further apart, “with a new generation of Palestinians and an unorganised intifada” with ongoing knife attacks, and rising violence on both sides.
“Added to this is the presence of the Israeli extreme right” in government, he observed.
Moreover, he pointed out, “Israel views the (Paris) conference as totally unacceptable…and the Arabs are not really all that much on board.” He said that “this conference answers a need…(but) it could be wasted shot.” Much hinges on how far the US is willing to go in supporting France’s drive and in taking a step back from the driving seat in the Middle East peace vehicle that has so clearly run out of fuel.
US Secretary-of-State John Kerry has prominently stated he will attend on Friday.
US President Barack Obama should have “nothing to lose” in investing American support in a process he has failed to bring forward, analysts said. But he may not want to damage the democrats’ election strategies only seventeen months from polling day and he might be wary of drawing fire from pro-Israeli groups in the United States.
But Bahout at the Carnegie Endowment says that maybe Obama – who has a terrible relationship with Netanyahu – might see some value in a “division of labour” between the US and Europe on the peace process issue.
“The proposed (French) process could help the American broker convince Israel to take a bold step towards fully-fledged peace, while Europe can to the same on the side of the Palestinian party,” he said.
Whatever the concrete outcome of the June 3 meeting, France will, at last, have gotten on to centre stage to present its blue-print for setting out a framework for addressing what Bahout calls the “mother of all conflicts”. (end) jk.gta