France’s direct participation in the creation of the modern Middle East has meant that for the last hundred years it has involved itself in the politics of the region. France was, of course, one of the two principals – the other was Great Britain – responsible for dismembering the Ottoman empire. The division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French- and British-administered areas flowed directly from the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret understanding concluded during World War One, between Britain (represented by Colonel Sir Mark Sykes), and France (represented by diplomat François Georges-Picot), with the assent of Russia. The agreement's principal terms were reaffirmed by the inter-Allied San Remo Conference in 1920 and then ratified by the Council of the League of Nations in 1922.
As regards the Israeli-Palestinian situation, while consistently defending Israel’s right to exist in security, France has long advocated the creation of a Palestinian state. President François Mitterand said as much in his address to the Knesset in 1982. Any possible incompatibility between these two positions, however, has never been acknowledged, but it is the flaw at the heart of France’s latest proposal.
Given France’s track record in the region, it is not surprising that it sees itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinan peace accord. Back in August 2009, when it was clear that newly-elected US President Obama was intent on relaunching peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to host an international conference to facilitate the peace process. The event would, of course, be held in Paris. He went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, and of course the Palestinian Authority (PA).
In January 2010, as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. A Paris-located international conference was advocated as a positive path towards achieving peace talks.
This prescription – obsession would be too harsh a designation – persists in French thinking. It reappeared in December 2014, when France took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal. The formula incorporated a two-year timetable for completing negotiations and – one is tempted to remark “ça va sans dire” – an international peace conference to take place in Paris.
This was the first time that then French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, waved his stick at Israel. Should the initiative fail, he announced, France would recognize a Palestinian state.
Fabius played the same tune, with minor variations, during his visit to the Middle East last June 20-22, to meet Egyptian President Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. His aim was to sell the idea of a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process, with backing from an “international support group” formed by the EU, selected Arab nations and UN Security Council members.
It is this initiative that France has now formally endorsed.
What is wrong with the French plan? For a start it removes all incentive from the Palestinians to compromise in any way at all. In fact, it is in their interest for the talks to fail. Since they are promised recognition from France – no doubt to be followed by a host of other Western nations – without giving an inch of ground, why should they bother to negotiate? In short, it has failure built into it.
In any event, France ignores the undeniable fact that no Palestinian leader dare reach an accommodation with Israel for fear of the backlash from the extremists on his own side – which explains the failure of each and every attempt at a final settlement over the past half-century. Both the PA and Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, maintain that the whole of Mandate Palestine, “from the river to the sea”, is Palestinian, and that their aim is to eliminate Israel from the Middle East altogether. For any Palestinian leader to sign an accord which asserts Israel’s legitimate place in part of “historic Palestine” would be more than his life was worth.
From Israel’s perspective the plan is clearly based on the assumption that all the concessions have to come from Israel, and that the threat that will force them to compromise is French recognition of Palestine. What France does not define is the Palestine that it threatens to recognize. Is it confined to the West Bank and east Jerusalem, or would it include Gaza, home to over a million Palestinians? If so, there is no acknowledgement that Hamas, the de facto ruler of Gaza, rejects the whole concept of a two-state solution, since one of the two states would be Israel to whose destruction it is dedicated.
France turns a blind eye also to the fact that Hamas is equally determined on overthrowing the Fatah-dominated PA and taking control of the West Bank, just as they did in Gaza. Or indeed that in any future Palestinian election, Hamas would in all likelihood emerge as the winner. Either outcome would result in a security nightmare for Israel. If Hamas moves into the West Bank, then Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Israel’s major north-south road network are within easy reach of rocket attack. The reality is that strong security coordination between Israel, Jordan and any new Palestinian state would be an essential condition of any peace accord, and that would certainly call for major concessions on the Palestinians’ side.
Perhaps most fundamental of all, France takes no account of the failure of the PA to generate a desire for peace among the Palestinian man or woman in the street. Fearful of the growing influence of Hamas, and intent on outdoing it in anti-Israel rhetoric, the PA continues to promulgate hatred of Israel and to laud the “martyrs” who commit acts of terror against Israeli citizens. This is not the atmosphere in which leaders approach genuine peace negotiations.
Unfortunately France’s initiative, well-meaning as it undoubtedly is, almost guarantees continued conflict far into an impenetrable future. As it stands, the plan is misconceived, a cordon bleu recipe for failure.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 February 2016:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 February 2016:
Published in the MPC Journal, 23 February 2016: