President Emmanuel Macron has called US president Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel "regrettable" and a violation of international law.
Trump’s announcement could push the French leader to take a stronger stand on the Palestinian question, which he has rarely mentioned until now.
"It is a regrettable decision that France does not approve of, and which contravenes international law and resolutions of the UN Security Council, " Macron said in Algiers on Wednesday evening. "I told President Trump very clearly of this position when we talked two days ago."
Macron appealed for calm and responsibility. “We must avoid violence at all costs and favour dialogue,” he said. “France is prepared to take all useful initiatives with its partners in this direction.”
Macron is certain to discuss the US move with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu when they have lunch together at the Élysée Palace this Sunday.
The French president pleased Netanyahu at their first meeting last July, by calling anti-Zionism "the reinvented form of anti-Semitism" and by appearing to give Israel a say in implementation of the nuclear accord with Iran.
In his annual address to French ambassadors at the end of August, Macron said, "It is fundamental that France continue to weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian question. We will pursue our efforts at the UN for a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Palestine. "
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy was the first European leader to declare, in a speech to the Knesset in 2008, that Jerusalem should be the capital of both states.
Macron's criticism of Trump was reminiscent of his reaction to Trump's back-pedalling on the Paris climate accord and the Iranian nuclear agreement. In the context of Trump's "peace initiative" between Israel and Palestine, France has warned the US that it has "interests and concerns in the region", the New York Times reported.
Speakers at a recent conference titled Israel-Palestine: Let France Commit Itself at the French Senate called on Macron to resurrect an abandoned French plan to unilaterally recognise the state of Palestine if a negotiated settlement is not achieved in a given time frame.
During his presidential campaign, Macron said he would not recognise Palestine because to do so would endanger dialogue with Israel and would not help the Palestinians.
The conference was organised by the Institute of Research and Studies for the Mediterranean and Middle East. In an open letter, its board pointed out the “abysmal paradox” between unanimous support for UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of December 23rd, 2016, and the absence of follow-up or enforcement.
The resolution was unusually harsh in its criticism of Israel. It was approved by four permanent UN Security Council members and all 10 temporary members. By abstaining, the outgoing Obama administration tacitly supported it as well.
The resolution noted that “continuing Israeli settlement activities are dangerously imperilling the viability” of the two-state solution. It began by reaffirming “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force” and condemned “the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian citizens”.
In response, Israel this year announced it would build thousands more housing units on the West Bank. It also introduced a Bill to legalise outposts that had hitherto been designated as illegal by Israel itself.
Elias Sanbar, the Palestinian ambassador to Unesco, called the struggle for recognition "the most fundamental battle ... If you recognised the Palestinian state, you would unblock the situation, because negotiations could take place between parties on an equal legal footing."
Although the conference took place before Trump’s announcement that he would move the US embassy to Jerusalem, Sanbar predicted it would happen. “If it does, we must say that we want an embassy in East Jerusalem [which the Palestinians claim as their capital],” he said.
That appears unlikely. On November 17th, the Trump administration threatened to close the Palestinian mission in Washington, because President Mahmoud Abbas asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for alleged war crimes.
Referring to French plans for a “Franco-Israeli cultural season” in 2018, Sanbar said “We are asking for a Franco-Palestinian season”.
The mood of the conference was gloomy to the point of hopelessness. “The impasse is total and the peace process has become a fiction,” said the diplomat Yves Aubin de la Messuzière.
This year has marked anniversaries of three fundamental dates in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the centenary of the Balfour declaration, which called for a Jewish home in Palestine; the 70th anniversary, on November 29th, of the UN partition plan enshrined in Resolution 181, which is the origin of the “two-state solution”; and the 50th anniversary of the June 1967 war that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
While other speakers called on Macron to fill the void left by the "unpredictable, unreliable US president", Daniel Shek, a former Israeli ambassador to Paris, exhorted France to "find a complementary, not a competing role" to Trump's bid for an ill-defined "deal of the century" in Israel-Palestine.
Since the Arab revolutions of 2011 and the rise of radical jihadism, interest in Palestine has waned, speakers noted. With the world’s attention focused elsewhere, several said they feared that Israel might again undertake the mass transfer of Palestinians, as happened in 1948.
"The fear of transfer is grounded not in government statements, but in government policies – the silent ethnic cleansing that is taking place in Area C," said the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, professor emeritus of University of Oxford.
Area C comprises 60 per cent of the West Bank, 72 per cent if Arab East Jerusalem is included. Shlaim, who was not present at the conference, said, “The denial of building permits, the denial of permits to build wells to irrigate, house demolitions and a whole raft of measures by the army are designed to make life impossible for Palestinians in Area C and to drive them out.”