France pushes for Israel-Palestine peace conference

Palestinians welcome initiative as Israeli foreign ministry predicts ambitious plan will fail

For the French officials who organised it, Friday’s ministerial conference on relaunching the Middle East “peace process” was nothing short of miraculous.

Nearly nine years have passed since George W Bush held the last international peace conference at Annapolis. George Mitchell and John Kerry attempted to relaunch negotiations during Barack Obama's presidency, to no avail.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process wasn't "stalled"; it was stone cold dead. The world's attention had turned elsewhere, to Syria, with its murderous regime and equally vicious jihadists, the multitudes of dead and floods of refugees.

Despite the region’s other conflicts, France’s foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told journalists at the close of the conference: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains at the heart of our preoccupations . . . We are not condemned to inaction, to standing by helplessly, expressing regrets and resigning ourselves to the erosion of the two-state solution . . .


“We are fighting distrust and passive acceptance. We have chosen hope.”

Critics ask how France could succeed where the last three US administrations have failed. What was the point of a peace conference attended by neither of the chief protagonists? Palestinians welcomed the initiative, but the Israeli foreign ministry predicted it would fail.

Yet 29 parties attended, including 26 countries, the United Nations secretary general, the EU's foreign policy chief and the head of the Arab League. All five UN Security Council members were represented.

The conference had been postponed for four days so US secretary of state John Kerry could be present. Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan represented Ireland.

Sense of urgency

Mr Ayrault attempted to inject a sense of urgency by explaining how wars in


, Syria and the rise of Islamic State inflamed the region while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festered. There were three wars in Gaza in six years, he noted.

“Islamic State makes propaganda in the Palestinian territories. This extremely dangerous context has raised awareness of the need for an initiative that creates hope,” Mr Ayrault said.

The participants drew up a joint communiqué “to reaffirm their support for a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. The statement was a concise, limpid summary of the problem. It specifically condemned “the ongoing building of settlements.”

More than 550,000 Israelis have settled illegally on Palestinian land. As if to emphasise the point, Le Monde published an article on Israeli's "bulldozer colonisation" of the West Bank. "The destruction of Palestinian houses continues at a steady pace," France's newspaper of record reported.

Mr Flanagan stated Ireland’s view that “more than anything else, it is the ongoing building of settlements which imperils the two-state solution”.

Asked why everyone deplores the settlements but no one takes concrete measures, Mr Flanagan responded: “We have trade issues and the labelling of goods.

“ I was to the fore in raising that at EU level, and I believe it’s important that we proceed on this in a way that the consumer would know what they’re buying and act accordingly.”

The conference called for negotiations based on resolutions 242 and 338, which demanded that Israel return land seized in 1967 to the Palestinians, and the 2002 Arab Peace initiative.

Mr Ayrault said working groups would begin drawing up “a global package of proposals and guarantees” this month, to be presented at an international conference by the end of the year.

“I would accept a French initiative with joy,” Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said last month. “If I was seated alone face to face with President [Mahmoud] Abbas at the Élysée or wherever you like.”

Israel maintains that peace can result only from direct, bilateral negotiations, but it is in a position of strength.

"Today, it is essential that we go from the bilateral path between occupier and occupied to a multilateral framework that enables the international community to assume its responsibility to enforce international law in Palestine, " Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the PLO wrote in Le Monde.

In a direct allusion to Mr Netanyahu, Mr Ayrault said that “proclaiming daily the wish for direct negotiations is not enough . . . We can propose a framework and support which will, when the time comes, make possible direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine.”

Mr Flanagan said he thought Ireland was invited to the conference because, “we bring expertise and experience in conflict resolution”. The Minister said his past membership in the Friends of Israel in the Dáil could be an advantage. “I was able to talk very directly to people like Mr [Avigdor] Lieberman [the extreme right-wing politician who was just appointed minister of defence] whom I met last year for an hour and a half,” Mr Flanagan said.

"I put my view and the view of the Irish Government quite directly to him across the table regarding the unacceptable nature of the settlements, regarding my variance with many of his utterances and those of his colleagues."

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times