French envoy backs uphill U.S. Mideast peace push

Laura Rozen

President Barack Obama found strong support for his bid to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from one notable party yesterday: France.

Unfortunately though, not one that is located in the Middle East. The show of U.S. solidarity from visiting French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is unlikely to push the two most relevant parties—the Israelis and Palestinians—back to the peace table. He acknowledged the improbability of negotiations that would head off a Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in September.

Juppe, speaking at the Brookings Institution Monday, endorsed Obama's recent call for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate borders of a future Palestinian state based along pre-1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps.

He also extended an invitation for France to host a Middle East peace conference--an offer Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said was premature given no sign of willingness from the parties to return to the peace table.

"We strongly support a return to negotiations," Clinton said Monday at a news conference with Juppe at the State Department. "But we do not think that it would be productive for there to be a conference about returning to negotiations. …So right now we are still in a wait and see attitude."

Juppe said that the Palestinians had warmly received his proposal, which he'd presented on a trip last weekend to the region, while the Israelis at least did not totally reject it.

He also said that he and Clinton had agreed to redouble their efforts to pass a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria's crackdown on anti-government protesters, despite signs that Russia and China may veto such a resolution.

While deliberately echoing the U.S. position on Middle East issues from the Arab spring democratic uprisings to Yemen, Juppe staked out a notably different stance than Washington toward a Palestinian unity government that includes the militant faction Hamas. Unlike Washington, Juppe welcomed Palestinian reconciliation as a potentially positive step.

"As for Palestinian reconciliation, I realize that it elicits conflicting reactions," Juppe said at Brookings. "But how can we imagine that a peace agreement would be respected and would guarantee Israel's security if not all Palestinians were to adhere to it? For our part, we believe that this reconciliation could represent a chance for peace."

The French envoy urged a Palestinian unity government to reject violence and open negotiations with Israel under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' leadership.

Despite the joint push for renewed peace negotiations, French analysts predicted a "train wreck" in September when Palestinians are expected to proceed with their bid to seek statehood recognition from the United Nations. France would likely vote for the measure, analysts said.

"If the French initiative doesn't succeed, and the chances are slim, we will not be able to avoid a train wreck," said Justin Vaisse, a Europe expert at the Brookings Institution. He predicted that Europe will be divided on the UN vote, with the Czech Republic, Germany and possibly Italy likely to vote against the Palestinian statehood resolution, while several other European countries, including France and Ireland, are likely to vote for it. Support for Palestinian statehood has been a longstanding French policy for thirty years, he said.

One possible "Plan B" option: that Europe may introduce an alternative resolution at the UN, one that would recognize a "Palestinian state living side-by-side with a secure, Israeli state, and that all Europeans could agree on," Vaisse said.

(Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shares a laugh with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe at the State Department in Washington, Monday, June 6, 2011: Susan Walsh/AP)