Why Paris conference on Mideast peace was a success

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Article Summary
In an interview with Al-Monitor, senior French diplomat Pierre Vimont says that the Jan. 15 Paris conference reaffirmed that a two-state solution is the only viable option for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

In charge of the Paris conference on the Middle East on behalf of the Quai d'Orsay, Pierre Vimont, a senior French diplomat who was the executive secretary-general of the European External Action Service in Brussels from 2010 to 2015, shared his views with Al-Monitor on the main results of the meeting that took place Jan. 15.

A graduate of the French National School of Administration, Vimont was ambassador and permanent representative of France to the European Union from 1999 to 2002. He then served three consecutive French foreign ministers as chief of staff to Dominique de Villepin, Michel Barnier and Philippe Douste-Blazy from 2002 to 2007. He was ambassador of France to the United States from 2007 to 2010. Vimont is currently the ombudsman of the French Foreign Ministry and teaches EU affairs at Columbia University in New York.

The full text of the interview, conducted by email, follows:

Al-Monitor:  What are the main results of the Paris conference on the Israel-Palestine conflict?

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Vimont:  The Paris conference succeeded in two ways. First, it has put back on the international agenda the whole issue of the Middle East peace process that had disappeared from most of the diplomatic fora in recent months. More importantly, it reaffirmed the principle of the two-state solution as the only possible option for any peace settlement. Second, it agreed on several practical processes to keep this option alive through relaunching the public debate on both sides and between both sides, if only to rekindle discussions inside both civil societies; supporting the current efforts of the Palestinian Authority [PA] to consolidate its state-building capacities; and sustained international efforts to support economic development in the area with the understanding that much of this development can only be available if a final peace agreement is reached at last.

There has been some misunderstanding around the French initiative as many observers thought it was about reconvening some new Madrid conference to launch a new round of peace talks. This was not our intention as obviously conditions on the ground were not ripe for such a deliverable and neither side was ready to accept such perspective. The goal was more realistic and focusing on giving a new impulse to the two-state solution when this option is being openly contested by some and considered by others as unreachable.

Al-Monitor:  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated his opposition to an international conference, saying instead he would meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas for direct talks. Do you expect Netanyahu and Abbas to meet soon?

Vimont:  The French initiative was never an attempt at overcoming direct negotiations between the two sides. On the contrary, it was always understood as a way to help both sides to come back to the negotiating table and engage again in meaningful and direct talks. Moreover, French authorities proposed to both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahou to come to Paris just after the conference to be informed about its outcome and, if agreed, to have a direct bilateral meeting. There was unfortunately no agreement on this proposal just as there was no agreement on the proposal addressed by President [Vladimir] Putin from Russia to both leaders to come to Moscow for a similar meeting. We understand that the Russian invitation still stands. So we will see if both sides at some point decide to give it a try. For the time being unfortunately, conditions for a fruitful meeting between the two sides do not seem to be there.

Al-Monitor:  Why did you decide to organize this meeting before the inauguration of Donald Trump? Do you think that the new political situation in Washington will have an impact on the course of the peace process?

Vimont:  It was stated right from the launch of this French initiative that it would conclude before the end of 2016 for many reasons linked to the political and international agenda. One of the reasons was precisely the incoming new American administration due to start on Jan. 20. The whole purpose of the French diplomatic efforts was precisely to restate in a credible manner the commitment of the international community to the two-state principle — namely two states living side by side in peace and security — in order for this engagement to be known to all. By gathering more than 70 nations and international organizations in Paris last January, we did precisely that.

Then it is for the new US administration to decide how it wants to proceed, and there is no doubt Washington policy in this field will play a major role in future developments regarding the peace process. For France, what was important was to reaffirm that all options other than the two-state solution have little chance if none at all of bringing a genuine peace settlement. This is the message coming out of the Paris conference and our hope is that it will be heard by all parties.

Al-Monitor:  In a related context, France has presidential elections scheduled for this coming April and President Francois Hollande is not running. Have the current candidates indicated they would take a different approach to France’s participation in the peace process efforts?

Vimont:  As far as I can see, the peace process issue has not been so far pre-eminent in the main candidates' electoral platforms. Yet through the many contacts with parliamentary and political circles I engaged in at the time of the French initiative, it was striking to observe the very large consensus on the need for a two-state solution. There are without any doubt differences of sensitivities amid the French political parties with regard to each side involved in this conflict. But when dealing with the question of how to reach a final peace agreement, there is a very large understanding around the assessment that stability and security can only be obtained and peace finally reached through the coexistence of two states living side by side.

Al-Monitor:  On Dec. 23, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2334, stating that Israel’s establishment of settlements constitutes a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution.” How do you respond to critics who argue this resolution further stalls peace efforts?

Vimont:  I know this is the view expressed by Israeli authorities and they have stated the same position in regard to the French initiative. But the reality is that peace efforts are already stalled. Moreover, if no effort is made, this backtracking will only go further down the road. Be it Resolution 2334, the Quartet report issued last July or the Paris conference — all these initiatives have forwarded the same message: the international community cannot let the existing situation on the ground deteriorate as it is happening now with the risk of growing violence and more regional tensions. In more simple terms, it is a warning call against inaction and lack of foresight.

Al-Monitor:  What could be the next steps following the conference?

Vimont:  As mentioned before, the followup will move along the three tracks agreed at the conference with more efforts directed at consolidating Palestinian state capacities, supporting economic development and encouraging public debates inside and between both civil societies. It was not the intention of the French initiative to launch any sort of new mechanism to replace existing processes. We, on the contrary, emphasized in the final Paris communique that existing formats should be encouraged to work more closely together, like the Quartet with the Arab League. Nonetheless the Paris conference agreed that, before the end of the year, those participants who wish to convene again would do so. This reference testifies of the need to keep alive the momentum triggered by the Paris meeting.

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Found in: mahmoud abbas, benjamin netanyahu, resolution 2334, francois hollande, israeli-palestinian conflict, peace negotiations, two-state solution, paris conference

Denis Simonneau is a member of the French Diplomatic Service and has held many international posts, including consul general of France in Houston and deputy spokesperson for the French government’s Department of Foreign Affairs. He is currently the director of European and international relations for an international group.

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