Sarkozy steals the show

French President Nicolas Sarkozy appears to have upstaged President Barack Obama, proposing a new plan to restart stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Only, his “French initiative” was all but identical to a proposal being negotiated by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton and Middle East Quartet leader Tony Blair. Sarkozy, ...

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

French President Nicolas Sarkozy appears to have upstaged President Barack Obama, proposing a new plan to restart stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Only, his “French initiative” was all but identical to a proposal being negotiated by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton and Middle East Quartet leader Tony Blair. Sarkozy, it seems, borrowed it without asking.

Ashton and Blair have been engaged in intensive negotiations with the United States, Russia, Israel, the Palestinians, and key Arab governments in a search for a compromise deal that would avert a U.S. veto over a Palestinian statehood bid in the U.N. Security Council. Like Sarkozy’s plan, it also envisions the resumption of talks

According to the arrangement, which has been described by sources familiar with the talks, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas would press ahead with his announced plan to present the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with a letter on Friday requesting U.N. membership in the United Nations. But he would then pack his bags and return home, without pressing for a vote.

Ban would then hand the letter to the U.N. Security Council, which must approve all requests for U.N. membership. The council would set up a committee to consider the request. The procedure would provide considerable scope for the United States, Britain, and France, which oppose a Palestinian vote, to stall action in the council.

“It appears likely that the U.S., with help from the U.K. and others, will use the committee to stall the Palestinian application and avoid the decision going to a vote in the UNSC,” said Carne Ross, the executive director of Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group. There are various rules that are supposed to govern the work of the committee but in truth the council members can do what they want — UNSC procedure is pretty malleable.”

Meanwhile, the Europeans would work with the Palestinians to draft a resolution in the U.N. General Assembly that recognizes Palestine as a non-member observer state, acknowledges that the 1967 borders, with agreed swaps, would form the basis of any ultimate peace deal, and also cites the Jewish character of the state of Israel. There is also an effort to reach agreement that the Palestinians would pledge not to pursue action in the International Criminal Court against Israel while negotiations are underway.

A separate statement by the Middle East Quartet, which includes representatives from the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, would set the timeline for political talks between the two parties.

It would call for the resumption of talks within four weeks, ask the Israelis and Palestinians to present detailed proposals for a peace deal within 3 months, and set a deadline for concluding and agreement on the two states’ borders and security arrangements within six months. The following six months would be used to conclude negotiations on a final settlement of all outstanding issues between the two sides.

It is by no means certain that the Palestinians or the Israelis will accept the deal. Nabeel Shaath, a member of the Palestinian delegation in New York, said that while the Palestinians are open to discussing the ideas announced by Sarkozy, President Abbas had every intention of pressing for a vote. There will be no “political delay,” he said.

Earlier this month, Abbas told reporters he had little faith in in the international mediators’ effort to come up with a diplomatic deal to avert a clash at the United Nations. “I don’t think it’s workable,” he said. “They came too late.”

Shaath also reiterated the Palestinians’ standard line that they will not resume talks unless the Israelis impose a freeze on settlements and agree to talk on the basis of several conditions, or parameters, including that any territorial discussion will be based on the border that existed between Arabs and Israelis before the 1967 war.

The negotiators, however, are counting on an unexpected development. The United States and its European allies have made progress in pressing Security Council members not to support a Palestinian statehood bid in the Security Council, raising the possibility that the Palestinians might not be able to muster the nine votes it needs for adoption of a resolution in the council.

But it remains unclear whether this development would be sufficient to restart the stalled talks, or whether Israel would accept any deal that included recognition of Palestine as a state.

“Peace is hard,” Obama noted in his General Assembly address on Wednesday. “And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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