For the first time in decades absolutely nothing is happening on the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic front. There is no agreed-upon structure for diplomatic engagement under U.S.—or anyone’s—guidance. Moreover, there is an international consensus that includes the United States that doubts, with good reason, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to a two-state solution.
It is under these circumstances that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will soon visit Israel and the West Bank. Given France’s interest in submitting a UN Security Council resolution to create a Palestinian state, the trip is another sign that the diplomatic arena for action on Israel-Palestine may be moving to the UN. But a UN effort risks being undermined by the same shortcomings that have characterized U.S. leadership, and that originally convinced many that the UN is the best option for ending Israel's occupation.
The French Initiative: On the Heels of U.S. Failure
The French initiative remains a work in progress. According to a draft published in Le Figaro, the resolution will set out an 18-month timetable for the completion of final status talks, based on the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that includes land swaps to enable Israel's annexation of some settlements. If Israel and the PLO fail to conclude an agreement by the end of the 18 months, France will recognize the state of Palestine.
Growing interest by France, as well as others in the EU, to internationalize efforts to frame a territorial and diplomatic outline is principally the consequence of two related shortcomings: first, the failure of the United States to craft and manage a resolution to the conflict and, second, the associated and counterproductive U.S. decision that diplomacy should be based on the assumption that representatives of Israel and the Palestinians, through bilateral negotiations, are capable of reaching an agreement.
It is clear that no one would be seriously considering a UN option if Washington's leadership was seen as successful, even according to the watered-down standards that have occupied center stage in recent years.
Tony Blair's recent decision to step down as envoy of the Quartet, a position he has held since 2007, is also a reflection of the weakened system created by successive U.S. administrations to manage (if not solve) the conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry and his team, or rather what is left of it, are clearly out of ideas. Obama himself is the source of such a conclusion. In an interview with Al Arabiya on May 15, Obama explained:
[W]hat I think at this point, realistically, we can do is to try to rebuild trust—not through a big overarching deal, which I don't think is probably possible in the next year, given the makeup of the Netanyahu government, given the challenges I think that exist for President Abbas—but if we can start building some trust around, for example, relieving the humanitarian suffering inside of Gaza and helping the ordinary people in Gaza to recover from the devastation that happened last year…if we can slowly rebuild that kind of trust, then I continue to believe that the logic of a two-state solution will reassert itself.
But while Obama's comments suggest that the United States has exhausted its interest and effectiveness, this is not the same as saying that Washington is now prepared to surrender a portfolio it has dominated for decades, or that the international community is now anxious to lead when, since the Kissinger era, it has always been content to follow.
Who Will Lead?
No one, including Paris, is anxious to claim the mantle of leadership. There is no evidence that Paris, the EU, or the international community more broadly is so "seized of the issue" that it has decided to lead the parties along a road on which they have so far been unable to travel. Rather, third parties in Europe are looking to fill a vacuum in U.S. leadership through a Security Council mechanism. However, it is not clear that a successful turn to the UN will miraculously energize the long-absent will of the international community to establish a Palestinian state at peace with Israel.
It would also be a mistake to assume that the Obama administration is interested in "leading from behind," that is, under a protective and instructive UNSC umbrella. Just the opposite is likely the case. Notwithstanding the well-publicized shortcomings of the U.S. effort, there is no reason to believe that Obama or any U.S. administration will easily surrender its leadership role. Letting the French play in the UN sandbox is one thing, but deferring to French wishes in a manner that transforms longstanding U.S. policy—such as recognizing Palestine by international fiat—is something else entirely.
What then of reports that Washington is quietly encouraging French efforts? Is this just a way for the United States to win international support for its own agenda?
All available evidence suggests that though Washington's interest in the effort is acknowledged to be critical to its prospects, there is scant evidence that the White House is preparing a new policy in which the Security Council would substitute for, rather than just support, a U.S. effort. Rather, the United States is likely in subdued support of the initiative in order to stay in the game for the moment, and it sees no harm in letting the French play the main hand.
What Good Could Come of a Resolution?
Of what value is a UNSC resolution that is conditioned and limited by considerations that have produced the current impasse? Could a UNSC resolution, assuming one is presented and adopted, offer a better model for diplomacy than the one that has failed under U.S. leadership?
Since Oslo, the United States has presided over a stillborn system of engagement that moves only as fast as the parties themselves are prepared to agree. The view that placing the burden of reaching an agreement on the central contentious issues of the conflict, which have evaded solution for decades, in the hands of the PLO and the government of Israel nevertheless remains an article of faith in Washington.
There have been alternative models to this one proposed, but none of them have won favor. For example, a study group headed by former State Department veteran Thomas Pickering (which included this author) advocated a far more robust U.S. policy:
U.S. leadership is vital because the parties to the conflict are demonstrably incapable of solving the conflict themselves…The United States must be prepared to define the parameters of an agreement, particularly as they relate to the core issues of Israeli and Palestinian security and sovereignty, implement them through leadership of a robust third-party mechanism, and achieve a treaty of peace that reflects the requirements of international law… including recognition of the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of the states of Israel and Palestine.
Perhaps the French resolution will unfold in this more forceful direction. A clear statement of an international consensus offering a final resolution of core issues and setting out a mechanism for implementing them would indeed mark a defining moment in the history of the conflict.
Yet it would be advisable for the supporters of a UN effort to be careful what they wish for. A UNSC decision to recognize Palestine might work to consolidate the occupation rather than remove it. Palestine might well succeed in winning a UN-recognized name, but no sovereignty. Indeed, if Palestine can gain international recognition without a mechanism for an end to Israel's occupation, why not simply declare Palestine a state and leave all the settlements and the IDF in place? The danger of the French move is that it might succeed in recognizing Palestine, enabling the international community to declare a self-satisfied victory but fail to establish a Palestinian state.
The international community continues to prioritize the need for a process of Israeli-Palestinian engagement over the requirement that the process be effective. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a master at exploiting this approach. All he may need to do is show a little bit of leg, as he has done since his reelection by hinting at his support for a two-state solution and nodding in the direction of the Arab Peace Initiative, to take the steam out of what remains a tentative UN effort to revive the diplomatic option.