France to Host International Peace Conference on the Middle East

This morning, May 15, 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu met with French Foreign Affairs Minister, Jean-Mark Ayrault, to discuss a French initiative to host an international peace conference at the end of 2016 in order to restart negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Before entering a cabinet meeting this morning, Netanyahu addressed the proposed French initiative, saying:

The way to true peace between us and the Palestinians is through direct negotiations. Only that way were we able to achieve peace with the Egyptians, only that way did we achieve peace with Jordan. Every other solution [other than direct negotiations] distances us from peace and gives the Palestinians an escape exit.

After Ayrault’s meeting with Netanyahu this morning, he headed to Ramallah where he planned meet with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.

In a Ynet article, sources close to the French Foreign Affairs Minister commented on the meeting, saying:

France is acting in full transparency in regards to Israel…It is not our intent to establish the outcomes of the direct discussions between the two sides beforehand or to bypass them [discussions] when they are the only way to a solution of the conflict, as the Israelis point out. The problem is that no negotiations are being held at the moment. The Foreign Minister reiterated that the goal of the French peace initiative is to once again rally the international community around common goals which are a renewed commitment for the good of the two state solution and the creation of conditions beneficial to the renewal of direct negotiations between the two sides.

The statement, “…creation of conditions beneficial to the renewal of direct negotiations…”, brings back unpleasant memories of President Abbas’s past “preconditions” for direct negotiations with the Israelis. In 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to Abbas’ demanded of a 10-month settlement construction freeze as a pre-condition for direct negotiations at the end of which Abbas only renewed the settlement freeze demand if the Israelis wanted to see him at the negotiating table. Sensing this was again the direction the Palestinians were taking with the new French initiative, Netanyahu has been stating loud and clear wherever he can, as he did at a reception for foreign ambassadors in honor of Israeli Independence day, that he is willing to meet with President Abbas anywhere, anytime to talk directly, but it is Abbas who continues refusing.

France: An objective third party?

Today’s meeting between Netanyahu and Ayrault came in the wake of month-long tensions between the two countries after France voted to support a resolution by UNESCO (the UN organization devoted to safeguarding world heritage sites) in which all Jewish ties and references to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem were blatantly omitted. The same UNESCO resolution refers to Israel as the “occupying power”, calls places in the Temple Mount complex solely by their Arabic/Islamic names, and accuses Israel of “planting fake Jewish graves in Muslim cemeteries” and of “the continued conversion of many Islamic and Byzantine remains into the so-called Jewish ritual baths or into Jewish prayer places.”

In response to the UNESCO resolution, many Israeli politicians voiced their outrage and sent angry letters to countries who supported it, including France, Russia, Spain and Sweden. Ahead of today’s meeting, Netanyahu sent a strongly worded letter to French President Francois Holland, saying:

The organization which is ordained for the preservation of world heritage sites has deteriorated to the point of rewriting part of basic and indisputable human history. We are under no illusion regarding the UN’s commitment to truth and fairness, and honestly we were amazed to see our friends, the French, raise their hands in favor of this shameful decision.

Netanyahu’s letter also noted with concern the international community’s willingness to enable Palestinian efforts to deny Jewish history in connection with Jerusalem and to perpetuate fictitious accounts of Israeli aggression on the Temple Mount, saying “it is not only immoral, it is dangerous.”

After criticism across the board from Israeli politicians and even from within France—including French Prime Minister Manuel Valls who called the decision to support the UNESCO resolution “unfortunate” and “clumsy”—the French government has been backpedaling its vote for the agreement, calling it a “misunderstanding”. According to a Haaretz article, the French claim they voted for the UNESCO resolution only to convince the Palestinians to halt their attempts to push another anti-Israel resolution through the UN Security Council.

In light of their plans to head an international middle east peace conference, the French are realizing that their vote in support of the blatantly anti-Israel UNESCO resolution has seriously damaged the prospect that Israel will take part—a fact which will seriously hinder the legitimacy of the conference. The Palestinians for their part are in favor of the French initiative and Abbas himself has contacted US Secretary of State John Kerry to urge his participation. In large part, the legitimacy of the proposed French peace conference also depends on the participation of the US and Russia, neither of which has of yet committed to attending.