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Middle East, Israel, Palestine

Paris Middle East peace talks more grandstanding than grit

Benyamin Netanyahu at the Knesset
Benyamin Netanyahu at the Knesset REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

On Friday, Paris will host a Middle East peace conference. It was initially proposed by French prime minister Manual Valls May 21-24 during his visit to Israel and the Palestine territories. Some twenty countries, including the US, Russia, and Egypt are supposed to take part. But there is much scepticism among both Israelis and Palestinians about a positive outcome of the meeting.

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The meeting was delayed for four days so that US secretary of state John Kerry could participate. The Egyptians said they are very interested in playing an intermediary role, the Russians will be there, but the two key players, Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu and the leader of the Palestine authority Mahmud Abbas will not be.

Israel bluntly rejected an international meeting. To soften the blow, Israeli Prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said he was willing to come to Paris if that meant a face-to-face meeting with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.

“Many Israelis, including commentators across the political spectrum see this more as a French effort to rehabilitate its international reputation,” says Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist with Bar Ilan University.

“The Hollande government has its own internal problems, so it is always convenient to have a grand Middle East peace conference in order to get headlines,” he says.

The Palestinians, in their turn, flatly rejected Israel’s proposal for a one-on-one meeting between their two leaders, fearing it would give Israel the upper hand in the negotiations. But for some Palestinians, even an international conference won’t do.

“The main issue, holding Israel accountable, is not even on the agenda,” says Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former peace negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO]. “

“We are now talking about 49 years, we are going to be entering into our 50th year, of living under Israeli military rule.”

“All the international community seems to want to do is to press Israelis and Palestinians to speak together as though this is a conflict between two equal parties, when it is not,” she says.

Earlier in the week, Netanyahu addressed the Knesset, saying that he remains “committed to making peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbors. The Arab Peace Initiative contains positive elements that could help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians.”

The 2002 Arab Peace plan, proposed by Saudi Arabia during an Arab League summit in Beirut, to which Netanyahu seemed to refer, calls for “full Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territories occupied since June 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights, [ ... ], and Israel’s acceptance of an independent Palestinian State, with East Jerusalem as capital in return for the establishment of normal relations ...” with 57 Arab states.

But Israel may not want to go all the way.

“Mr. Netanyahu and now the new Defense minister [Avigdor] Liebermann, although considered to be very right-wing, both talked about a changed, edited, revised Arab League, or Saudi peace plan,” says Steinberg.

“So it is not the text of 2002 that the Israelis are talking about, but something different, for instance without the Golan Heights into it, primarily Israeli-Palestinian, moving towards two states, no right to return for [Palestinian] refugees.”

“Israel has its own conditions and terms, and the question is whether these are negotiable,” he reckons.

The Palestinians were very happy about the Saudi plan but if it is modified in a way Steinberg suggests, they may back down.

“It has a chance of success, provided that Israel abides by it,” says Buttu. “The 2002 message of the Saudi plan said to Israel, look, in exchange for your full withdrawal from all of the territories that you occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, we will give you full economic and normalized relations.”

“But since the Arab peace initiative was launched that year, until today, we've seen exactly the opposite.”

“Rather than pulling out of occupied territory, we've seen them entrench themselves in occupied territory. If you are Palestinian living on the ground, all that you've seen over the course of the past two and a half decades is an expansion of settlements, we've seen that less and less land is going to Palestinians, more homes are being demolished, and we see the entrenchment of a system of Apartheid,” she says.

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