Employing the classic parry and thrust of international diplomacy, France is trying to convene a Paris peace conference in July to preempt a U.N. General Assembly vote in September that would unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.
But there is one big problem with the strategy: Israel is refusing to take part in any conference with the Palestinian Authority as long as a unity pact exists between the factions of Fatah and Hamas, the radical Islamist group that refuses to recognize Israel’s existence.
Mark Regev, the spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told National Journal on Monday that any participation by Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, including the unity pact, would make such talks impossible. “If Hamas is behind the government, that’s a nonstarter,” Regev said by telephone. “There can’t be any movement forward as long as the PA has the pact with Hamas.” Hamas and Fatah recently signed a unity agreement intended to end four years of hostility since Hamas took over Gaza.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who is in Washington to discuss the proposal, is seeking to find a way around Israel’s objections by creating a kind of “firewall” around Hamas's participation. “The idea was to say that [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas would do a kind of road map, and his government would be one of technocrats, only supported by Hamas,” a French spokesman said.
Juppe, in a breakfast meeting with reporters on Monday, equivocated over whether France would reject a General Assembly resolution, indicating that Paris wanted to maintain its leverage over the Israelis.
U.S. officials have not formally endorsed the idea for a conference, even though it is partly based on President Obama’s call for negotiations based on 1967 borders with land swaps. In speeches in recent weeks, the U.S. leader has made clear that his objective too is to avert a U.N. General Assembly vote unilaterally creating a Palestinian state.
After years of failed efforts at peace talks, the Palestinians have increasingly acted on their own in recent months, organizing a movement inside the U.N. and protests on Israel’s borders intended to mimic the uprisings in other Arab states since January. On Sunday, Israeli troops opened fire as Palestinian protesters and Syrian supporters tried to breach the border at the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
Despite the effort to use the ’67 borders as a starting point, which Netanyahu strenuously objected to during his visit to Washington last month, Regev said Israel was not opposed to the idea of a conference and “it’s important to have the core issues on the table.” But he added that Israel was concerned about the European approach in general. “The Europeans want a high degree of specificity from us when it comes to issues that are important to the Palestinians and a great deal of vagueness when it comes to Israel’s concerns.”
If there are negotiations, Israel is insisting that there can be no clarity on an issue like final borders unless the issue of Palestinian refugees is resolved at the same time. Israel refuses to allow them back into its borders, saying they must “return” to a new Palestinian state. But the Europeans, Regev said, will only call vaguely for a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue while specifying that the 1967 borders must be observed by Israel.
Regev said the Israeli government is still discussing the French proposal.