Exclusive: Paris Saying ‘Non’ to U.S. Control of Peace Process

The Obama administration is willing to anger Israel by letting the U.N. get more active in peace talks with Palestinians. But it may be Paris, not Washington, that ends up in the lead.




This story is updated.

Barack Obama’s administration is hinting that it may push for a U.N. resolution endorsing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a move that would be the most concrete sign yet of Washington’s deteriorating relationship with Israel. In the end, though, it may be France that leads the diplomatic drive for a concrete plan laying out the terms for a negotiated peace.

France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, told reporters this week that Paris is committed to seeking U.N. support for a resolution setting out guidelines for future negotiations and calling for an end to Israeli settlements. The French would be happy to see Washington take the lead on crafting a resolution and moving it through the U.N. Security Council, according to diplomats familiar with their thinking. But Paris will try to force Washington’s hand if the Obama administration hesitates for too long. “We won’t give up on this,” Delattre said.

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told reporters in New York on Friday, March 27, that Paris would start talks in the “coming weeks” on a parameters resolution, and issued a veiled appeal to Washington to come on board. “I hope that the partners who were reluctant will not be reluctant anymore,” Fabius said, according to Reuters.

The United States has signaled to French, British, and German officials in recent weeks that it is willing to consider supporting a new draft resolution. But Washington, like Paris, is waiting for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new coalition government before determining when, or whether, to move forward.

The French initiative is a retread of a previous drive late last year by Paris to muster support for placing the U.N. Security Council at the center of international efforts to promote a Middle East peace, a move that both the United States and Israel have long opposed. If the French effort fails, Paris has warned that it will unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine, following a handful of other European countries, including Sweden, Malta, and Cyprus.

In late November, France drafted a resolution that outlined a set of five parameters meant to serve as a road map for future political talks. But the confidential draft — which was obtained by Foreign Policy and which highlighted the “urgent need to attain” agreement on a two-state solution within 24 months — was put on ice at the insistence of the United States, which threatened to block any action in the Security Council before the March 17 Israeli election.

But with the election over and Netanyahu seeming to drop his earlier support for a two-state solution, France has signaled its intention to press ahead on the plan, not immediately, but eventually. Neither Paris nor Washington has indicated when it would consider a move to the Security Council. The White House, fuming over Netanyahu’s election pledge not to pursue a two-state solution during his term, has said it is carrying out a review of its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“We consider that it’s important to re-create, to consolidate the momentum and the objective of a two-state solution,” Delattre said this week. “We consider that the U.N. Security Council is most likely the best venue, if not the only venue, to do this, and to do this in a consensual way.… The question is when would be the best time to do that, and it’s a bit early to say, but again my message is we consider this consensual parameter resolution as one of our key objectives to restart the negotiation process, and we will not give up on that.”

The French maneuver is part of a broader diplomatic gambit by Paris aimed at breaking up Washington’s diplomatic monopoly on the Middle East peace process. French officials maintain that decades of U.S.-brokered negotiations have hit a dead end, raising the need for a new approach. France has proposed an international conference designed to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process that would include representatives from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, the European Union, the Arab League, and key Arab governments. “If this final effort to reach a negotiated solution fails, then France will have to do what it takes by recognizing without delay the Palestinian state,” France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told French Parliament in late November.

The confidential French draft resolution outlines a plan for a “just, lasting and comprehensive peaceful solution that fulfills the vision of two independent, democratic and prosperous states, Israel and a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security within mutually and internationally recognized borders.” A similar version of the draft was posted on the web site of a U.N.-based reporter in December.

There is little optimism among U.N.-based diplomats that a new Security Council resolution will be enough to compel the Israelis and Palestinians to embrace a new round of peace talks anytime soon. And France has so far been unable to secure support from its most important European allies, Britain and Germany, which fear a resolution will be unacceptable to Israel and the United States. But U.S. officials have informed Paris that a resolution setting out such parameters may be worth pursuing if Israel’s government shows little sign of embracing a new peace push.

Diplomats say the new parameters resolution could prove as foundational as Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which have provided the basis for decades of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

The French resolution outlines several conditions for peace talks, including a recognition that borders between Israel and Palestine would be “based on 4 June 1967 lines with mutually agreed limited equivalent land swaps.”

It calls for an “agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution to the refugee question, including a viable mechanism to provide for repatriation, resettlement, compensation and other agreed measures for a conclusive resolution,” a condition that would require Israel’s approval but that would nevertheless engender opposition from Netanyahu’s likely coalition partners. Jerusalem, in another provision likely to draw immediate Israeli opposition, would be “the shared capital of the two States which fulfils the aspirations of both parties and protects freedom of worship.”

Israel might get at least one provision for which it has been calling for decades: a guarantee that the new state of Palestine wouldn’t have armed forces of its own. The resolution envisions “security arrangements that respect the sovereignty of a non-militarized state of Palestine, including through a full and phased withdrawal of Israeli security forces” while ensuring the “security of both Israel and Palestine through effective border security and by preventing the resurgence of terrorism.”

The extent of Palestine’s control over its own borders — as well as Israel’s ability to police them — has been a sticking point for years, and the French resolution may have wisely stepped around addressing the specific areas of dispute. Israel has three primary demands: ensuring that Palestine doesn’t develop a formal military, retaining control over Palestine’s airspace, and keeping at least small numbers of troops in the Jordan Valley, which Israel says would be essential to preventing foreign militants from crossing the border into the West Bank. Palestinian leaders say the third provision would be a deal-breaker.

While the United States has yet to engage in formal negotiations with France over its plan, Washington has been informally advising Paris, either directly or through its European allies, to make specific changes to the text. For instance, Washington has insisted that any resolution recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a key demand by Israel that the Palestinians and other Arab states find objectionable.

“The United States has been privately pressing France to refer to Israel as the ‘Jewish state,’ but Arab diplomats say that is a no-no,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former member of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Mideast peace team, which effectively disbanded last year amid a complete lack of progress.

France has sought to bridge the gap by including a reference to a nearly 68-year-old U.N. General Assembly resolution — Resolution 181 — that called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.

That may not be enough for Israel, which believes the draft text is too pro-Palestinian, providing the Palestinians with tangible concessions on borders but providing Israel with only vague security assurances and insufficient clarity over the right of refugees to return to Palestine. For instance, the draft includes an explicit call for a halt to settlements while including no references to Palestinian rocket attacks on civilian Israeli targets.

“Israelis will want more detail on security and more details on refugees,” Goldenberg said. “The Israelis would want to be clear, whatever mechanism, there would be few Palestinians coming back.”

In the end, Goldenberg said, he has a hard time believing that the United States will be able to openly support the French resolution, citing the political sensitivity over U.N. action. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), recently warned that the U.S. Congress might have to reconsider U.S. funding to the United Nations if a resolution supporting Palestinian statehood is adopted by the 15-nation Security Council. But Goldenberg said he could envision Washington backing a narrower resolution condemning Israeli settlement policy. “I have a hard time seeing the U.S. actually saying yes” to a parameters resolution, he said.

For France, according to Goldenberg, the ultimate goal is to get the Americans on board.

“If they believe the U.S. is serious, they will give the U.S. space and time,” he said. “They will defer to the Americans to some extent on the timing and be respectful of the Americans’ language.”

Photo credit: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

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

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