There is something symbolic about the fact that Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s foreign minister, visited Israel to promote his peace initiative on the day commemorated by the Palestinians as the Nakba (the “catastrophe” of Israel’s independence on May 15, 1948). In the Palestinian national psyche, the true historical scar is the loss of lands and homes in 1948, not Israel’s seizure of the West Bank and of the Gaza Strip in 1967. Yet Mr. Ayrault, like most of his Western colleagues, insists that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved by solely addressing the outcome of the 1967 war.
When Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed a Declaration of Principles in September 1993, they left open the questions of Jerusalem and of the refugees precisely because no agreement could be reached on those thorny issues. When Jerusalem and the refugees were addressed and negotiated at Camp David in July 2000, and after the Annapolis Conference of November 2007, the gap between Israel and the Palestinians remained unbridgeable and unresolved.
The rejection by Yasser Arafat of Ehud Barak’s proposal in July 2000 and of the Clinton parameters in December 2000, and Mahmoud Abbas’ lack of response to Ehud Olmert’s September 2008 offer, have made Israelis distrustful of the Palestinian leadership (thus dealing a fatal blow to the Israeli left). And when Israelis look around their neighborhood today, they have good reasons to wonder what is the logic of creating another failed Arab state at their doorstep.
The implosion of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen have not only confirmed the artificiality of the post-World War One Arab states carved out of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France. They have also removed two formerly threatening armies from Israel’s northern and eastern fronts (Syria and Iraq). In Egypt, the Islamic regime of Mohamed Morsi was replaced in 2014 by that of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi –thus restoring the “cold peace” and security cooperation between Israel and Egypt. The self-proclaimed “Caliphate” of the Islamic State is still spreading mayhem around the Middle East despite nearly two years of US-led airstrikes. The growing regional clout of Iran has forged tacit alliances between Israel and Sunni monarchies. Meanwhile, plunging oil prices have weakened Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
Just like Richelieu’s France during the Thirty Years War, Israel can sit back and build unholy alliances as its enemies are killing each other. In today’s Middle East, Israel has every reason to play for time. Except, that is, when it comes to demography. And this is where Jean-Marc Ayrault and his colleagues can play a constructive role.
The conventional wisdom of European diplomacy is that Israel should accept the so-called “Arab Peace Initiative.” Yet this initiative is as clear-cut on the territorial issue (Israel is expected to withdraw from every inch of land conquered in 1967, something that is not even required by UN Security Resolution 242) as it is vague on the question of refugees (it calls for a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem, which the Palestinians interpret as a “right of return” within Israel). If American and European diplomats want to make themselves useful and credible, they need to be equally explicit about both the territory and the refugee issues: if Israel is to abandon the West Bank, the Palestinians are to abandon the “right of return.”
Were the US and the EU to officially endorse this trade-off, Israel would have better reasons to consider a partial disengagement from the West Bank for its own demographic interest, but on the condition that the US and the EU commit to endorse a modified and more viable status quo so long as the Palestinians refuse to abandon the “right of return.” Such trade-off will not solve the conflict, but it might give Israel an incentive to act and it might convince the Palestinians that the era of diplomatic free rides is over. Short of such modest yet potentially far-reaching paradigm shift, Mr. Ayrault will once again confirm the French saying: “Plus ça change, et plus c’est la même chose.”