JERUSALEM — Until a week ago, it seemed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was a flat-liner.
President Obama thought so. In March, he said he wouldn’t seek to jump-start talks — the two sides were too far apart; it was not in the cards.
Now Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives are popping up all over.
On Friday, the French will host a meeting of about 25 foreign ministers, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, to seek international consensus on a way to move talks forward.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Kerry was going to Paris to learn and listen — not to lead.
“It’s about being there, being part of the discussion, exploring ideas and options that might get us closer to a two-state solution,” Kirby said.
But Kerry’s presence in Paris worries Israelis who fear that the international community is going to press them to end the 49-year military occupation of the West Bank and the partial trade and travel blockage of Gaza, and to stop ongoing construction of Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a future state.
The Israelis also have their eyes on the calendar. They are concerned that the Obama administration will, before leaving office, enshrine a two-state solution in a speech or a U.N. resolution, in effect laying out the final status ahead of negotiations.
Kerry spent nine months trying to bring the two sides together in 2014. The talks ended in recriminations about who was to blame for their failure.
Across the political spectrum in Ramallah and Jerusalem, nobody holds out much hope for the French effort.
French diplomats shrug and say in briefings with journalists, “We have to do something.”
In Israel, there is a feeling that something is happening.
Just this week, the once-
moribund Arab Peace Initiative is back in the game after years on the sidelines.
Proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, the deal offers the idea that the Arab states will normalize relations with Israel after Israel withdraws from the occupied territories — including East Jerusalem — and begins the process of allowing for a Palestinian state.
Former Israeli governments have been hostile or lukewarm to the Arab proposal.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon called the Arab Peace Initiative a “nonstarter” when it was proposed.
This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Arab peace offer intriguing. But Netanyahu also suggested that the Arab states recognize Israel first as Israel makes moves toward giving the Palestinians a state.
That will be a tough sell in the Arab League.
Into this mix comes former British prime minister Tony Blair, who has been shuttling between Egypt, the Arab Gulf states and the Israelis, trying to broker a way to get the sides talking.
Also intriguing, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi said in a recent speech that he thinks the time is ripe to revisit a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
The French seem ready to press ahead with what they see as a solution to the conflict — including what borders should look like for a Palestinian state and whether Palestinians should have a capital in Jerusalem.
The French also may try to set deadlines for future talks. If their efforts fail, French diplomats have warned that they may unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.
If they did, France would be the first major European country to do so.
“The peace process has failed,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told Israeli television last month.
Israel is opposed to the French effort, saying that only direct talks with the Palestinians can end the half-century impasse and military occupation — and that international conferences will solve nothing, but will encourage Palestinian stubbornness.
“Peace just does not get achieved through international conferences, U.N.-style,” Netanyahu said at a news conference with Valls.
“It doesn’t get to fruition through international diktats or committees,” Netanyahu said.
The Palestinians support the French gambit.
Palestinian negotiators say that Obama and Kerry and past U.S. administrations have failed to strike a deal for two states
for two peoples and that they want to “internationalize” the conflict.
Kerry has not said much about the French effort, but the fact that he is attending the Friday meeting — the French rescheduled it to fit his schedule — worries the Israelis.
Netanyahu is concerned that there is a “diplomatic hurricane” coming this year.
“The path to peace is not via international conferences that attempt to force a settlement, that make the Palestinian demands more extreme and in the process distance peace,” he said.
Netanyahu said if Paris really wants to advance peace, the French should encourage Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate directly with the Israelis.
Palestinian peace negotiators such as Saeb Ereket say that Netanyahu is just stalling for time, that he is not a serious partner, and that he revealed himself last year on the eve of his historic election to a fourth term as prime minister when he vowed there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch.
Mostly absent in recent weeks have been the Americans.
Martin Indyk, the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution, who was the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during Kerry’s futile attempt to resume talks, said that the Paris conference is an opportunity but can go only so far.
“On the one hand, it’s important the international community continues to express its interest in trying to help the parties resolve the conflict,” said Indyk, who said he is not advising Kerry on how to approach Paris. “So keeping the hope alive for a resolution of the conflict is very important.
“On the other hand, there are some troubling aspects to the French approach, which creates the impression that the international community is seeking to impose a solution, or at least a deadline for negotiating a solution. This is being done in the absence of Israelis and Palestinians, neither of whom have been invited.”
David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the French initiative is still vague, making it difficult to determine how much is driven by French politics and how much by a rush to weigh in before the U.N. Security Council considers a resolution on the issue.
The Palestinians have pushed for a U.N. resolution that calls for an end to the Israeli military occupation and construction of Jewish settlements.
“A grand deal is not likely to happen so long as these leaders are both risk averse,” Makovsky said of Netanyahu and Abbas. “The international community cannot impose a deal on unwilling participants. They will find a way to unravel it.”
Morello reported from Washington.