Former Israeli Official: French Peace Talks Will Fail If They Replace Direct Negotiations

The Israeli-Palestinian peace conference scheduled to begin in France on Friday may be successful if it leads to direct negotiations between the two sides, but will be a failure if it merely encourages the Palestinians to hold out for the “vain hope of an imposed solution,” a former senior Israeli official said Thursday.

Eran Lerman, until recently the deputy director of the Israeli National Security Council and now a senior research associate at the BESA Center, explained to reporters in a conference call organized by The Israel Project (which publishes The Tower) that Israel was concerned about the “architecture” of the conference.

Is this a sort of facilitation procedure that leads to direct negotiations and somehow eases the way for reluctant parties, specifically reluctant Palestinian parties, to actually engage in direct negotiations without preconditions? Or is this in the minds of the Palestinians, and this is ultimately what would matter, structurally an avenue, an alternative to negotiations…through the instruments of international coercion? The first Israel can live with, though we fear that the present structure, or the present interpretation of what the French initiative would lead to, would actually be the second.

It would be “impossible,” Lerman said, for an imposed solution to address the specific details of a final peace agreement, such as borders, security arrangements, the status of Jerusalem, and the future of Arab and Jewish refugees. These can only be done “by the parties at the table talking until there’s a basic outline for a solution,” and any other attempt to solve these issues will be counterproductive.

The Israeli government believes that the French are acting in good faith and that there was enough commonality between the positions of Israel, France, and moderate Arab countries to “justify a joint action of some sort.” Still, Lerman cautioned, the whole process will fail if the Palestinians interpreted the initiative as a “prelude to coercion.”

While Lerman reiterated that the Israeli government still had reservations about the French approach, he took note of the parallel effort to engage moderate Arab countries in a process to help bring the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table. He explicitly mentioned that Egypt was central to “the camp of stability” in the Middle East, which included Jordan and most of the Gulf states except for Qatar. These nations fear the rise of Islamic extremism and share security concerns with Israel, so security cooperation could be a means of possibly “building a resumption of negotiations into a larger regional picture.”

Although Lerman largely supported the Arab Peace Initiative, he said that it wouldn’t work as a “take it or leave it” offer, because conditions in the Middle East have changed in the 14 years since it was first announced.

In a paper (.pdf) published earlier this week for the BESA Center, Lerman fleshed out many of the ideas he presented in the conference call, explaining that Israel has a “newly discovered sense of being a significant regional player rather than a besieged small state in a hostile sea.” Lerman characterized the French and Egyptian initiatives as being not focused so much “on permanent [peace] status,” but rather as a “practical mechanism that might engender eventual progress.”

[Photo: BESA Center / YouTube ]