The Paris peace conference said direct negotiations could achieve peace, but it was nothing more than an empty ritual.
The 15 January Paris Middle East peace conference, with 72 governments participating, reaffirmed a two-state solution to be achieved by direct negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians.
It was declared as the one and only path to peace. Such a conference outcome, while not unexpected, seems best understood as an expression of geopolitical futility, a fear of what lies ahead, and the awkward absence of any plausible Plan B.
The US had been providing diplomatic sponsorship for 20 years of failed Oslo diplomacy that cannot be continued under present circumstances even if rechristened with a different name.
The new leadership in Washington gives this end of the road assessment added authority. President Donald Trump has emphatically endorsed the Netanyahu-settler vision of a one-state Israeli “solution”.
The Paris proceedings, despite the fanfare, actually widened the gap between empty public rhetoric of the diplomats and the pessimistic conclusions that policymakers convey to each other behind closed doors.
This gap arises because of an awkward contradiction. Holding onto the two-state consensus remains a useful public relations gambit to show that the Palestinian ordeal is not forgotten and that the international community is still committed to a peaceful solution of the conflict.
Yet behind closed doors, it is acknowledged that there is no prospect of seriously interesting the present Israeli leadership in any diplomatic process that could lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. This makes it politically futile and misleading to continue insisting on the two-state solution.
On this basis, it would seem that the Paris conference was nothing more than an empty ritual, of no help to the Palestinians and irrelevant to the challenge of finding an acceptable way to end the conflict.
But despite the temptation to adopt such a view, there are still reasons to pause before pronouncing the French initiative an outright failure.
We should ask: If Paris was so irrelevant, why did it attract the participation of more than 70 governments, including the United States? And why did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bother denouncing Paris as “the last twitches of yesterday’s world,” coupled with the pledge that “tomorrow’s world will be different”?
From Netanyahu’s standpoint, the biggest difference between yesterday and tomorrow is undoubtedly Trump. Will Trump really follow through on the inflammatory promise to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? In a partial down payment, Trump has appointed David Friedman, a pro-settler extremist, to be the next US ambassador to Israel.
Friedman, a diplomatically inexperienced bankruptcy lawyer in New York City, has outrageously compared members of J Street, the liberal Zionist NGO, to Jewish collaborators with Nazi overseers of genocidal death camps.
Such hyperbolic language does portend a new red dawn, distinguishing the pro-Israeli partisanship of the Obama years with something even more one-sided, dispensing with any pretension of sympathy for the Palestinian ordeal or the accompanying claim that peace will be eventually found on the basis of a political compromise.
With such developments in mind, it does seem that Netanyahu is right to think that tomorrow’s world will be different – but maybe not in the ways he imagines.
Collapse of diplomacy
In some ways, the Paris Conference, while provoking Netanyahu’s ire, surrendered to tomorrow’s world.
Francois Hollande, the French president, ensured that the final declaration of the conference repeated Netanyahu’s formula of direct negotiations as the one and only path to peace without even mentioning a Palestinian state as the essence of a desirable outcome.
Furthermore, Hollande did not use the opportunity to ask the UN Security Council to recommend the admission of Palestine as a full member of the UN, a step that many backers of the conference had urged, and expected.
Even John Kerry, the departing US secretary of state, made clear that the conference should not attempt to exert political leverage on the parties, despite being sharply criticised by Israel’s leaders for airing his anti-settlement views.
Kerry hammered a final nail in the coffin of Palestinian expectations at Paris by phoning Netanyahu on the day of the conference to reassure him that there would be no further action at the UN or elsewhere critical of Israeli policies and practices.
Living in Netanyahu’s tomorrow’s world would mean that the Palestinian struggle is treated as a lost cause, allowing everyone to move on without paying further attention to Israel’s moves to consolidate its victory – a final public burial of the two-state solution.
No end in sight
How, then, should we understand this present moment?
On the table of world diplomacy sits this empty shell of a two-state solution that none now dare touch.
In contrast to this collapse of diplomacy, we are witnessing yet another chapter in the long narrative of Palestinian suffering and disappointment.
Effectively abandoned by the world, Palestinian destiny is apparently being reduced to the indefinite continuation of present arrangements that combine harsh occupation with no end in sight, a creeping process of annexation in the West Bank and the gradual Judaising of East Jerusalem.
Such a process seems headed for a unilateral declaration by Israel that its permanent international borders extend to the whole of historic Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. With this step, the conflict would be over.
Self-determination not forgotten
But the Palestinian people and their most authentic representatives do not accept this bleak interpretation of their prospects.
From this perspective, the Paris Conference was a disappointment – but not a failure.
By defying the wishes of Israel, the main states of the world sent a message that the Palestinian struggle for self-determination was not, and will not, be forgotten. This reinforced the Security Council initiative last December when 14 of its 15 members voted to condemn the unlawfulness of Israel’s settlement expansion policy.
Even the US abandoned its role as Israel’s UN guardian by abstaining rather than casting a veto.
In other words, Obama and Kerry may be gone, but most of yesterday’s world is not ready to accept Israeli unilateralism and the resulting abandonment of Palestinian fundamental rights.
True, Trump may roil the waters by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, but such a move is likely to backfire. It could lead to renewed Palestinian resistance, to more support from Arab neighbours, and to an intensification of world public opinion supportive of a just outcome for the long Palestinian struggle.
Rather than the Palestinian struggle being written off as a lost cause, the new context is likely to bring renewed attention and shows of solidarity.
The geopolitics of the coming years is unpredictable to an unprecedented degree. The weakening of American leadership may create increased international space for Palestinian solidarity.
The Palestinian Authority, to sustain its role, may take further steps to establish its identity as an unlawfully occupied “state,” having already been diplomatically recognised by more than 130 countries and having been declared a non-member state by the UN General Assembly in 2012.
It is to be expected that Palestinian resistance in various forms will not disappear, and will continue to lead Israel to rely on excessive force to establish order.
Such a pattern will encourage the global solidarity movement to be more militant, and may eventually move governments to impose sanctions.