France is proposing to lead the Middle East Quartet on a new foray into Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. This is understandable as a part of French politics. The Palestinians, however, are setting up to be at least as difficult a client for France as they have ever been for the U.S.
Of the members of the P5+1 negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran last summer, France was least happy with the result and said so publicly. Since President Obama needed all five other nations to sign onto the deal, he bowed to a previously expressed French interest in midwifing a Palestinian state in exchange for French acquiescence on Iran.
Aside from its traditional delusions of influence in the Middle East, France wanted to appease its large, unassimilated, unhappy, and increasingly violent Muslim population, which is predominantly Sunni with no love for Iran – and not much love for the French State. France is also part of the anti-Sunni ISIS coalition, which angers parts of the French Muslim population as well. President François Hollande perhaps thought he could buy time or space by inserting himself in the issue of Palestinian statehood – not resolving the problems that bedevil Israelis and Palestinians, but just producing a Palestinian state.
Hollande & Co. will run afoul of two trends: one French, one Palestinian. First, France’s Muslim population, while increasingly anti-Jewish, is not particularly interested in a Palestinian state. Watching Israel sold down the river by a Western country may have some visceral appeal, but it will not let Hollande off the hook for France’s perceived sins against its Muslim population or the Sunni Muslim cause. Second, France is offering the Palestinian Authority nothing the Palestinians have not previously rejected – and will reject this time as well for the same reasons.
Three firm offers of Palestinian statehood have been tried: the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 that called for “a Palestinian Arab State and a Palestinian Jewish State” (Jews were called Palestinians before the establishment of Israel made them Israelis); the Olmert offer of 2000, made at Camp David with the active assistance and blessing of President Clinton, including 97% of the West Bank, free passage to Gaza (this was before the Hamas-Fatah civil war in 2007), and rights in Jerusalem; and the 2006 Barak offer. The Arab states rejected the first, Arafat the second, and Abbas the third.
The Palestinians have always had three bottom lines:
- Establishment of an internationally recognized state without permanent borders. This leaves open the possibility of future claims against Israeli territory.
- The right of return by the original 1948-49 refugees and their descendants to places inside the “Green Line” from which they or their ancestors claim to have originated.
- Jerusalem as the internationally recognized capital of Palestine.
Simply stating the parameters makes it clear that any true negotiation is unlikely to succeed – not that France was offering one, but the parties always paid lip service to the idea of a negotiated settlement. The Palestinians have now decided that even that is risky.
Palestinian Authority foreign minister Riyad al-Malki told a press conference in Japan, “We will never go back and sit again in a direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.” Then, as Palestinians often do, he almost told the truth about why. He warned that radical forces in the West Bank are growing and threatening “moderate” Palestinian rule. “If Daesh takes advantage of a lack of brokers … then of course they might come and try to fill [the vacuum]. This is very dangerous.”
Hamas, the main enemy of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, has indeed made inroads in the West Bank, and ISIS-supporters are found there as well. P.A. corruption and repression have produced a citizenry that is poor, angry, and fearful – fertile ground for radicals.
And while the P.A. blames Israel, 81 percent of Palestinians in a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research believe that the P.A. is corrupt. Al Shabaka, which calls itself “The Palestinian Policy Network,” noted in a 2015 study, “Palestinians have been increasingly frustrated with corruption in the PA over the last decade, leading to street protests in 2004, and the election of Hamas in 2006. Dealing with corruption effectively would require structural change of the political system, including an effective legislature, an independent judiciary, civil society monitoring, and a reformed international aid system.”
The same report notes:
Employment in the PA public sector does not necessarily imply job security: If employees express criticism of PA policies, they are likely to be forced into early retirement, denied salary payments, or arbitrarily removed from their posts. They may also face a series of punitive measures, including denial of promotion or transfer to distant areas.
Just this week, the P.A. set up security checkpoints – you know, like the hated Israeli checkpoints? But not for security – the P.A. was attempting to prevent Palestinian teachers from demonstrating for payment of their salaries. The P.A. threatened the bus companies that drove the teachers to Ramallah for the demonstration. In the past year, the P.A. has arrested more than 50 Palestinians for social media activity.
It is in hopes of channeling public anger that the P.A. provides direct and indirect support to the stabbing campaign against Jews. But at the same time, the P.A. continues to coordinate with the IDF in the territories so that Israel can continue to arrest Hamas and ISIS operatives – which serves both PA and Israeli interests – as well as arresting Palestinians organizing and supporting terror against Israel.
Palestinians claim that security coordination is forced upon them and would cease if the “occupation” ended. This is a necessary double game for Abbas. Palestinian security forces make up 44% of total PA employees and use 30-35% of its total budget (much of which is supplied by the U.S.), but without the support and coordination of the Israel Defense Forces in the territories, Abbas would find it impossible to stay in power.
His fear isn’t that Israel won’t give enough at the negotiating table; it is that Israel might concede so much that France might force him into a deal that will remove IDF protection from his corrupt regime.
There is little chance that France could succeed, but enough of one that Abbas won’t risk sitting in the room with Israel.