Paris Peace Conference – the beginning or the end of an era?

On 15 January 2017, France held a multilateral peace conference in Paris with the goal of reinjecting life back into the frozen Middle East Peace Process.

The conference follows an earlier preparatory meeting in France in June 2016. Diplomats and politicians from over 70 countries attended the conference – including ongoing German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – to reiterate their support for the two-state solution. However, the ensuing statements and inconclusive results highlight cracks in the international community’s previous agreement on keys issues on the ground.

In the weeks running up to the conference, the Israeli government was vocal in its opposition. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed the conference was "rigged by the Palestinians with French auspices to adopt additional anti-Israel stances". Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, went one step further, declaring "it will not just be a trial against Israel but a modern Dreyfus trial", alluding to the anti-Semitic trial of the French army captain Alfred Dreyfus in the 1880s. Such drastic imagery was reflected in the protests held outside the Israeli embassy in France.

Indeed the Palestinian leadership looked favourably towards the conference as it attempts to internationalise the conflict and turn the page on the previous negotiation formula of US-sponsored bilateralism. As senior Palestinian official Mohammad Shtayyeh explained before the conference, bilateral discussions between Israelis and Palestinians "have not ended occupation even though we have been engaged in bilateral talks for the last 26 years".

However, after the diplomats left Paris on the evening of 15 January and the official statement was finally released, it was clear to most how overblown the surrounding fanfare was. The final statement repeated calls that are slowly losing all meaning for Palestinians in the occupied territories, "that a negotiated solution with two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, is the only way to achieve enduring peace". However, no concrete steps will follow and therefore the situation on the ground will likely remain the same. The statement ended with a vague promise of another meeting "before the end of the year in order to support both sides in advancing the two-state solution through negotiations".

To understand why the results were inconclusive, it is important to know what was happening behind the scenes. In a final act of solidarity with his European counterparts, US Secretary of State John Kerry did join the conference, but his presence was overshadowed by Donald Trump. Since winning the US election, all signs suggest that the incoming President will be uncritical of Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories and may even move the US embassy to Jerusalem in a clear break from the past. In an attempt to curry favour with Trump, the UK sent a relatively low-level diplomat to the conference and distanced itself from the final already watered-down statement. Alone and uncertain, the other EU leaders were unable to muster up anything new.

Disappointed with the final results, the Palestinian leadership has been left staring into the abyss. Palestinians believe the Israeli government has little to worry about and fear the conference will soon been a relic of a no longer relevant world order. With Britain turning its gaze towards the US, the EU will have to either adopt a position independent of its long-standing partners or risk becoming irrelevant. Yet for the Palestinian public it’s business as usual. They were apathetic before the conference took place and greeted its results with indifference. Presidents come and go and peace talks start and fail, but a soon to be 50-year old occupation has become a sad fixture of everyday life.


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