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Mainstream, VOL LV No 10 New Delhi February 25, 2017

Implications of Latest Paris Conference on Palestine

Monday 27 February 2017

by Gautam Sen

An international conference on the Palestine issue has been held in Paris on January 15, 2017, at the initiative of France and chaired by the French Foreign Minister, Jean Marc Ayrault. This was a follow-up to the earlier Paris Conference of June 3, 2016. The timing of the recent conference was significant because it was finalised just before the adoption of the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2334 on December 23, 2016, which called for a two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel issue, condemned continuing violence, demanded a cessation of the ongoing Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, and advocated resumption of direct negotiations between the two contesting parties. In the European Union government circles—particularly in France—there was a view that the time was ripe to build up pressure on Israel and generate a momentum to revive the Israel-Palestine dialogue process which had stalled since 2014.

The scheduling of the latest Paris Conference had another significance vis-a-vis the domestic politics of France. France will have its presidential elections on May 17 this year, and a sizeable number of its electorate consists of voters of Arab and Muslim origin. A French initiative is expected to attract their support and impact favourably the candidates from the country‘s Centre-Left political spectrum or aligned to the incumbent Socialist regime. French President Francois Holland has, however, justified the convening of the conference on the premise that the present status quo was not an option for the international community in the existing volatile Middle-Eastern milieu, and criticised those who viewed the hosting of the conference at this juncture as naïve.

The conference on January 15, 2017 was well attended by over 90 countries and organisations including the quartet, that is, the USA, European Union, Russia and the UN, as compared to 28 who attended the previous Paris Conference on June 3, 2016. Interestingly, the Palestine Authority (PA) President, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu did not attend this conference. The PA President, however, supported its convening, while Israel castigated those in favour of the conference. Netanyahu had observed that, this was the last gasp of the Palestinians and their supporters before the future sets in. The US Secretary of State from the outgoing Obama Administration, John Kerry, attended the conference. While the UK attended, the government of Prime Minister Theresa May, surprisingly, questioned the effectiveness of holding the conference and its decisions.

It was basically a French show, with President Francois Holland‘s government trying to establish its presence and bonafides as a major player in regard to the Palestine-Israel contentious issues and in the Levant in general.

The Benjamin Netanyahu Government of Israel had adopted a hardline view on the conference, describing it as a Palestine-French manoeuvre with the backing of the outgoing Barrack Obama Administration, intended to isolate Israel. Abbas and the PA, on the other hand, targeted the conference as a follow-up strategy to the UNSC Resolution 2334 to build up pressure on Israel to obviate the transferring of its capital to Jerusalem, halt ongoing Israeli settlements in the occupied territory, and also to send a signal to the incoming Trump Administration not to move the US embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem which would imply de-facto recognition of Israel‘s claim to the whole of the Holy City of Jerusalem. Israel was apprehensive that the conference could set the stage for another UNSC Resolution similar to Resolution 2334.

If pressures build up for direct negotiations between the PA and Netanyahu Government and there is even a temporary halt to the Israeli settlement process with a decline in the level of violence in the Palestinian territory under Israeli dominance, then the latest Paris Conference would have served its purpose. Abbas and his PA are keen that the conference trigger such a chain of events leading to a subsequent peace conference in Moscow under the aegis of Russia‘s Vladimir Putin Government. The Palestinians are hopeful that the outcome of the conference may contribute towards sustainability of a negotiated peace agreement, the starting of a meaningful dialogue process, consolidation of the Palestine state’s capacities and the developing of a special privileged partnership with Europe in particular, and resultant other political and economic initiatives and private investment in their territory.

At no stage was Israel ever enthusiastic about the latest Paris Conference. Israel has been apprehen-sive, more so after adoption of the UNSC Resolution 2334, that attempts would be made by the European Union countries, through the medium of the conference, to force terms on it that are in conflict with its interests. Israel has never wanted a fully autonomous and self-sustaining Palestine state as its neighbour and also to give up effective administrative control of any part of Jerusalem to which it has a lot of sentimental and historic attachment. Israel had felt that such a political entity would not be totally free of extraneous and radical Arab elements and hence inimical to its geostrategic position.

Israel has of late been hinging its expectations on the new US Government of President Trump to substantially tone down the apparently even-handed policy which Barrack Obama adopted in the last lap of his presidency. It is, however, doubtful if President Trump would indeed fulfil the expectations of the Netanyahu Government. During the recent nomination hearings in the US Congressional Committees (for confirmation in their appointments as per US laws), both Rex Tillerson and General James Mattis, the US new Secretaries of State and Defence respectively, did not indicate a supportive posture towards the re-location of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

The outcome of the recent Paris Conference will also depend on the extent a convergence of interests can be achieved between the USA and Russia on Palestine. It is doubtful if the Trump Administration will reinforce pressure on the Netanyahu Govern-ment on the settlement issue, ignoring the US Jewish lobby, a section of which stood by him during the presidential campaign. However, the US President may not change the status quo regarding presidential waiver (an executive prerogative the US presidents can exercise to withhold implemen-tation of an Act enacted by the US Congress, in state interest, within certain limitations), from implementing the USA Jerusalem Act of 1995, presently in force, which will ensure maintaining the status quo on the present location of the US embassy in Tel-Aviv.

In the circumstances likely, as mentioned above, the basic interests of the Palestinians may continue to suffer to the extent that the evolution of their state towards a fully autonomous and empowered political entity, which is allowed to function with legitimate international status, may not be feasible. It is doubtful if the fundamental essence of Palestinian nationhood would be a significant factor in Russian interests to outweigh the Putin Government’s strategic considerations in the Middle East as a whole. The scenario in the European Union also may not necessarily be encouraging and cohesively supportive of Palestine‘s interests. This is predicated on the likely changes in the presidency in France, and anticipated re-working of the relationship between the NATO, European Union and the US under Trump‘s regime.

The author, a retired officer of the Indian Defence Accounts Service (IDAS), has served in senior positions with the Government of India and a State Government. The views expressed here are the author‘s own.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62