The timing of the May 15 Jerusalem visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault could not have been more perfect, killing as it did two birds with one stone.
First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to cooperate with the French peace initiative dealt a blow to the very essence of Israel’s public diplomacy — the claim that Israel yearns for peace but does not have a Palestinian partner. The cold shoulder that Netanyahu gave the French diplomatic initiative confirms that the speech he delivered seven years ago at Bar-Ilan University, declaring his commitment to the two-state solution, was not worth the paper it was written on. On the other hand, the warm response of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to that same initiative illustrates to the international community that the peace rejectionist does not necessarily reside in the Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah.
Second, Ayrault’s empty-handed return to Paris could just be the final nail in the coffin of the initiative to broaden the base of Netanyahu’s narrow government by adding the opposition Zionist Camp to the ruling coalition. In fact, Netanyahu was in a bind from the minute the French initiative was first presented some four months ago, in late January, by former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. It forced Netanyahu to choose between entering into a peace process that would entail a freeze on West Bank settlement construction and result in a coalition crisis his right-wing coalition partners will not accept, including the danger of a rupture within his Likud Party, and a crisis with the international community along with a deterioration of security in the territories.
Not surprisingly, Netanyahu chose the second option. He took advantage of a joint Feb. 16 news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin — on the day the initiative was formally presented to Israel by the French ambassador to Israel, Patrick Maisonnave — to label the French initiative “puzzling." But Netanyahu’s objection did not deter the French. In a conversation with reporters in Paris April 21, Ayrault said, “There is no other solution to the conflict than establishing two states — one Israeli and the other Palestinian — living side by side in peace and safety [based on the 1967 borders], with Jerusalem as a shared capital.”
Ayrault said 20 states had accepted an invitation to take part in an international Middle East peace conference, among them Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab League members. The US administration and France are now trying to set a date during the summer and to agree on adequate language, so that the Americans could send a senior envoy (perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry) to the conference without being perceived as hostile to Israel. But from the meeting the prime minister had on May 15 with his French guest, it appears that Netanyahu’s heartfelt desire to coax members of the Zionist Camp into joining his government had not softened his opposition to the French initiative, even though Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog stated he will not join the coalition without launching regional negotiations. Netanyahu is still hoping that despite it all, Herzog will be tempted to board a plane as Israel’s foreign minister, travel the world in defense of the government’s positions and place all the blame for rejecting peace on the doorstep of the Palestinians.
Herzog, who is also the chair of the opposition, hinted at his willingness to sign up for the job when he met in January with French President Francois Hollande and said, “We have to be realistic. It [the two-state solution] can't become a reality now.” He added, “The hatred and incitement among the Palestinians is just too great.” Herzog proposed at the time to substitute negotiations for "a separation plan" from Palestinian-populated areas that Israel itself would choose to give up.
But Herzog’s position did not stop the French either, as evidenced by their intense efforts to advance negotiations on a two-state solution. The disagreements between Netanyahu and France and other European states make it hard for Herzog to sample the delights of government and keep his party intact.
However, according to estimations, US President Barack Obama might use the transition period between the November presidential elections and the swearing in of the next US president in January to leave his mark in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
If and when Herzog asks members of his party caucus to raise their fingers in favor of joining the Netanyahu government, his opponents in the party will surely want to know his views on the French idea of an international conference. In fact, it is all there on his Facebook page. On May 12, Herzog laid out his conditions on crossing the lines into the Netanyahu Cabinet: “A mandate to stop the next funeral and the threat of an international boycott, to restore the United States and Europe to the status of allies, to launch negotiations with the countries in the region and to separate from the Palestinians into two states in order to stop the incessant terror campaign.”
At a May 15 meeting with Zionist Camp activists, Herzog talked about an opportunity that had arisen to “promote rare regional diplomacy” in explaining his desire to join the government. He will have to explain to his party caucus and to the public at large how he intends to promote a rare diplomatic move, or even a routine one, from within a unity government with the hawks of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich. As of this writing, there is no indication that Netanyahu is willing to exchange the radical rightists he dubs “natural partners” for half of the Zionist Camp’s Knesset faction, at best, willing to enter this government with Herzog. Netanyahu might end up exchanging Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon for the rightist Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman, leaving Herzog on the opposition benches.
May 16 marked the centenary of the agreement signed by the French government’s envoy, Francois Georges Picot, with the representative of the British Foreign Office, Mark Sykes, dividing control over the lands of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. According to the agreement, when World War I ended, the Land of Israel was divided between the two colonialist powers (another area was handed over to international control). How symbolic that Israel marks almost half a century of occupation in June 2017 when France is the one trying to help it shake off its colonialist burden. Still, the French prospects of success are uncertain.
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