The so-called ‘French initiative’—a boost-plan for the moribund ‘Middle East Peace Process’ designed to bring Israel and the P.L.O. back to the negotiating table under an international umbrella through a series of multilateral summits—was born in classic French diplomatic opulence. Not nearly half-baked, the initiative was presented ceremoniously in a grandiose manner by a foreign minister who was replaced shortly after, prompting knee-jerk reactions from all parties.
The Palestinians welcomed it, though somewhat wearily, the Israelis swiftly rejected it, the Americans were once again caught unprepared and visibly hesitant, the E.U. felt circumvented and the Arab states unmoved and preoccupied elsewhere. The initial declaration came with a clear ‘Plan B’—if unsuccessful, France will move to unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine. After the immediate Israeli rejection, this element of the initiative was shelved.
It should have come as no surprise, given the ongoing French efforts to play the avant-guard role in the Israeli-Palestinian tormented saga. The first round of this French-Israeli diplomatic jiu-jitsu was played in January 2011. An early version of a French peace plan, quite similar to the current one in essence, was put forth to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Shortly thereafter, it was the then defense minister Ehud Barak who coined the expression “diplomatic tsunami,” referring to an organized internationalization campaign led by the Palestinians and assisted by the regional and international communities. Barak described a process that will be propelled all the way to the U.N. Security Council and force Israel to accept unfavorable peace terms. He tried to use this alarming code-word to put pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move forward with serious negotiations, to no avail.
But then, the summer came and went, and Barak’s phrase became the stuff of TV and newspaper pundits, as well as ‘we told you so’ politicians, congratulating themselves on their initial dismissive reaction. ‘We will never succumb to international pressure’ has always been a consensus, almost sacred policy dictum in Israel, and the whole episode rang familiar and reassuring to many Israelis. Since then, successive summers and winters brought different kinds of tsunamis, in the shape of two Gaza military operations—Pillar of Cloud and Protective Edge—as well as a gradual strengthening of the B.D.S. movement and a creeping erosion of Israel’s, and particularly Netanyahu’s, credibility with respect to the two-state solution. Nevertheless, Barak’s dark assessment never quite materialized.
In December 2014, the French National Assembly voted—339 in favor, 151 against—to recognize the state of Palestine. In June 2015, France contemplated tabling a U.N. Security Council resolution detailing the so-called ‘parameters’ for a final status agreement, including an 18-month deadline for the negotiations, anchoring the June 4, 1967, armistice line as the basis for negotiations on borders, and using particularly sharp language regarding the “illegality” of Israeli settlements.
In their 2016 incarnation, the French are playing a somewhat different game. They are maneuvering between three calendars—the U.S. election cycle leading to President Barack Obama’s lame duck period between November 8 and January 20, 2017; the 70th annual U.N. General Assembly in September-October; and their own political clock which is ticking toward presidential elections in April 2017.
France is driven by its traditional interest to demonstrate global relevance; domestic political considerations, especially vis-a-vis the growing Muslim population and the rising terror threat; and its longstanding special relations with major Arab actors, mainly Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Obviously, the U.S. pivot away from the region and particularly from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major enabler as well.
Meanwhile, the multi-annual summer routine of false tsunami alarms, beyond its numbing effect on the Israeli public opinion, allowed the government to hone its diplomatic and political apparatus, but they have also taken a heavy diplomatic toll. With the irreparable Obama-Netanyahu rift, the growing European impatience with Israel’s policies and deteriorating conditions on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, Israel’s options to once again torpedo the French-led international drive on the Palestinian issue are dwindling.
That is partly why Netanyahu made an effort to broaden his coalition and enlist the good diplomatic services of the veteran ‘peace horse,’ Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party. Herzog was pitching his secret flirt as driven by “a unique historic regional opportunity” and, off-the-record, went as far as to suggest that with U.S. and European backing—Secretary of State John Kerry and Tony Blair were named as godfathers of the botched attempt—a summit meeting was already agreed upon between Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi. For a brief moment, it looked like there might be a shift in Netanyahu’s approach, but in a typical move he jettisoned the gullible Herzog in favor of his old hardline comrade, the erratic Avigdor Lieberman. Virtually all Israeli commentators and observers experienced a strategic surprise. From a foreign policy angle, the last-minute sharp turn makes no sense, and is bound to bolster the French and other international actors in their attempt to put pressure on Netanyahu. The Egyptians were also reportedly taken aback, not least because Lieberman’s infamous threats—made in 1998 and again in 2001—to bomb the Aswan Dam are apparently still etched in their memory.
Whatever political motivations Netanyahu may have had, this summer he is very likely headed toward a real diplomatic tsunami, powered by France and possibly culminating with an Obama 'lame duck' move. The ‘doomsday scenario’ that is rumored to haunt Netanyahu is a U.N. Security Council resolution on the parameters for the final status, including the creation of a full-fledged Palestinian state within the 1967 lines, shared capital in Jerusalem and a demand for total settlement freeze. The next-worst scenario is an American veto blocking the Security Council channel, and leading to a succession of unilateral declarations recognizing Palestine as a state. The wave will probably be inaugurated by France, followed suit by major European countries and potentially the E.U. as a whole, showing the way to a host of other countries across all continents.
The alternative that the new Israeli government, Netanyahu’s fifth, will try to reconstruct with or without Herzog—the distant possibility of Herzog splitting from his Labor Party and joining the coalition may yet come to life—is an Arab-led regional initiative. However, it is unlikely that the Palestinians will play along with such an Israeli move to drive a wedge between the French and the Arab states. In fact, one can much easily foresee a coordinated French-Arab initiative than an Israeli-Arab one. It is nevertheless quite ironic that the ‘bon ton’ in the Israeli far-right—including the newly anointed Lieberman, known for his aggressive anti-Arab rhetoric—is an Arab-led peace initiative, much preferred to a Western-led one.
Ultimately, there is no reason to believe any third party—French, Egyptian or another—can formulate an agreed terms of reference, which will succeed where Kerry failed after nine months of negotiations in 2013-2014. The Israeli and Palestinian current leaderships are not capable of consequential negotiations.
The centenary of the Balfour Declaration will be marked in 2017, as will the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the 40th anniversary of the rise of the Israeli political right. Whichever path is chosen, the coming months are going to take all of Netanyahu’s maneuvering skills, and a healthy dose of luck, to once again avoid historic decisions and escape the rising tide.