Over the past year and a half France has been hit by a wave of terror attacks. The worst have been the January 2015 attacks at the Charlie Hebdo office and the Hyper Cacher market in Paris, which killed 20, and the concerted November 14-15, 2015, attacks in Paris that killed 130.
And on May 19, 2016, EgyptAir Flight 804 left Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and ended up crashing into the Mediterranean, killing 66, in what is seen as a terror attack.
Amid these grave problems, however, on Friday, June 3, France saw fit to convene a conference of 29 foreign ministers (including Secretary of State John Kerry) in Paris to deal with that old, invincible focus of attention: Israeli-Palestinian peace, or the lack of it.
This gathering came only a week after a governmental shakeup in Israel that saw Avigdor Lieberman replace Moshe Yaalon as defense minister. With Lieberman’s five-man faction joining the governing coalition, it now numbers a more workable 66 Knesset members instead of the previous paper-thin 61.
The Washington Post, in an editorial that came out before the Paris conference, used this sequence of events to do some vintage Israel-bashing.
The Post called Lieberman “a hard-line nationalist with an abysmal international reputation,” blamed Netanyahu for failing to add the left-of-center Labor Party to his coalition instead of Lieberman’s right-of-center faction, and called on Netanyahu to prove his peace credentials by implementing a “partial settlement freeze.”
Each of these statements is a distortion of the truth to one extent or another.
First, while Lieberman has made it easier to pick on him with some impulsive, belligerent statements over the years, the record shows that since 2009 he has—for better or worse—consistently favored a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, making him clearly more dovish in that regard than his predecessor Moshe Yaalon.
Second, even the Post acknowledges that blaming Netanyahu for the breakdown in talks between him and Isaac Herzog, leader of Labor, “may not be entirely fair,” and that Herzog “ran into considerable opposition to the proposed merger from his own party.” In fact, most Israeli media reports say it was opposition by Labor’s more extreme leftists that—for now—sank the talks.
And third, on settlements, Netanyahu has only pushed for construction within the existing settlement blocs while construction outside the blocs has been minimal. In fact, over the past quarter-century Israel has built close to zero new settlements in the territories. If this is not a “partial settlement freeze,” what would be?
What, then, is going on?
Friday’s conference ended with a communiqué condemning both “continued acts of violence and ongoing settlement activity”—once again equating Palestinian stabbings and shootings with Israeli construction of homes—but also calling for “direct negotiations between the two sides” as distinct from a solution imposed from the outside.
Right-of-center Israel Hayom reports that this formulation was welcomed by Jerusalem, which—if fruitful Israeli-Palestinian talks are on the cards at all—wants to keep morbidly obsessed, instinctually pro-Palestinian France and other European actors as far from them as possible. Israel Hayom also credits Israeli diplomatic activity for achieving this relatively favorable result.
Kerry, for his part, settled for anodyne statements, encouraging Israeli hopes that the Obama administration, too, will refrain from making a last pitch to force uncongenial terms on Israel.
Meanwhile, the Israeli leadership—including both Netanyahu and Lieberman—keeps referring to a “regional initiative” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue that would involve Sunni Arab states as well as the Palestinians.
A real possibility, or an Israeli diplomatic strategy to fend off pressure from Europe and the U.S.?
On the one hand, Israel’s growing security and economic ties with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states might seem to make such a scenario plausible.
But, on the other, ongoing Palestinian radical rejection of Israel’s legitimacy—with 83% of Palestinians saying that “this is Palestinian land and Jews have no rights to it” and only 12% agreeing that “both Jews and Palestinians have rights to the land”—suggests that such visions remain, for now, hypothetical.
In other words, the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is for people who understand that not all problems have solutions and life largely consists of coping with imperfect realities.
France, for its part, has more than enough imperfect reality of its own to confront without uselessly—at best—interfering in Israel’s affairs.