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This week, the French government, which has long tried to help broker a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, will launch its latest attempt with an international conference in Paris. The summit has made headlines not because of its substance but because of its unusual format: neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were invited. Instead, officials from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East will gather to lay the groundwork for future direct talks between the two parties on a two-state solution.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as other Israeli officials, contend that little good can come from a multilateral initiative that excludes Israel. Netanyahu argues that only direct negotiations can resolve the conflict, and has countered with an offer to resume bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians.
But for the Palestinians, the conference represents a twofold victory. For one thing, it shrinks the role of the United States from chief mediator to mere participant. In the broader international community, the logic goes, the Palestinians believe they will find a more sympathetic audience, especially among their European allies. Their overwhelming 138–9 victory in the 2012 vote to upgrade their status at the UN General Assembly only furthers this belief. And as Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah party official, said in February, “Anything is better than American control of the negotiations.”
For another thing, by moving the peace process away from bilateral negotiations and toward a multilateral forum, the Palestinians hope the conference could result in binding international parameters for a future Palestinian state. As a collection of senior Fatah and Palestinian Authority officials known as the Palestine Strategy Group argued in a 2015 report, an “internationalized route” would make sure that “any future negotiations play the role of implementing what has already been internationally endorsed.” Similarly, last September, the Palestinian leader President Mahmoud Abbas called for a “collective, multilateral peace process” that would resemble the “difficult negotiations for the Balkans, Libya, and Iran.” In other words, the Palestinians hope that the Paris conference starts a process of outsourcing final status negotiation issues to the international community.
The origins of their conference strategy lie in last summer’s Iranian nuclear deal. In the talks that produced that agreement, Palestinian leaders saw world powers coming together to sign a diplomatic agreement over Israel’s strenuous objections. In November 2015, three months after the deal was struck, Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior Fatah official and a veteran peace negotiator, called for a similar conference, citing the nuclear negotiations as precedent. “If there was a Geneva Conference for Iran,” Shtayyeh asked, “why shouldn’t there be an international conference for Palestine?”
Although this version of a peace conference may seem new, the Palestinians’ efforts for international recognition are not. Since 2011, when the Palestinian leadership toyed with the idea of submitting a resolution for statehood to the UN Security Council, the Palestinians have advanced their “Palestine 194” campaign, a policy to make Palestine the 194th country recognized by the United Nations. A year later, the Palestinians took their bid to the UN General Assembly, securing an upgraded status as a non-member observer state. By 2014, the Palestinians had enrolled in dozens of international organizations, which emboldened them to go back to the UN Security Council to try for another statehood resolution. When that attempt failed, they signed the Rome Statute and joined the International Criminal Court (ICC), a move they hoped would allow them to pursue charges against Israel for alleged war crimes.
Yet after joining the ICC, the Palestinians hit a brick wall. For years, Palestinian officials insisted that that the true end goal of Palestine 194 was ICC membership. Now that they had accomplished that, their threats about future action rang hollow. A senior Fatah official told me in 2013 that joining the court would serve as a trump card that would shift the balance of power against Israel by threatening their leaders with international legal action. Another senior Fatah figure described membership in the court as a “last resort” that would signal the end of peace negotiations, since it would crystallize the shift away from bilateral talks to the international realm. But ever since the Palestinians joined the ICC, they have found themselves in international legal purgatory, with prosecutor Fatou Bensouda still conducting a lengthy preliminary investigation into the events of the 2014 Gaza war. Accession to the ICC may have worried some Israeli officials, but any rulings on alleged Israeli misbehavior are unlikely to come for years, and in any event, the preliminary investigation is also looking at alleged misconduct conducted by Hamas and other Palestinian parties in the war. Even if a ruling were to come down, such a verdict won’t do anything to create a Palestinian state.
That’s why the Palestinians shifted their focus back to the international community. Earlier this year, before the Paris conference became a reality, Abbas drafted a UN Security Council resolution—similar to the one the United States vetoed in 2011—calling for a freeze of Israeli settlements. Even though the resolution didn’t make it to a vote, Washington has signaled that it may not veto a similar resolution in the future, given the frosty relationship between the administration and Israel and the precedent set by the two previous presidents in their last terms in office. And there’s reason to believe that the Palestinians may return to the UN Security Council with a new resolution before U.S. President Barack Obama’s term expires. Indeed, the Palestine Strategy Group’s 2015 report urged the leadership to follow an international conference with “successive UN resolutions.”
The Palestinians clearly see a window of opportunity. Between the European Union’s decision to label products made in Israeli settlements and the acts of various European parliaments to recognize a Palestinian state, Palestinian leaders sense a growing wave of diplomatic support. Add in the Obama administration’s reluctance to take the lead on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in its last year, and it’s not hard to see why the Palestinians think they might never get a better shot at internationalizing their struggle than they will in 2016.
The meeting in Paris may spark both Israelis and Palestinians to participate in a future peace summit later this year. Or, it could produce nothing more than empty rhetoric in support of peace. It will most certainly bolster Ramallah’s confidence in its internationalization campaign. Regardless of the outcome of the French conference this week, the very fact that it’s happening represents a victory for the Palestinians.