It’s a remarkable time to be alive. The affairs of men seem to be in the grip of some bizarre energumen, predictable only in the sense that we can count on strange interludes and stranger outcomes. These are not the conditions one would prefer to face a French-sponsored conference on “Middle East peace” in.
But here we are. France is hosting the conference on Sunday, 15 January. Some 70 nations are to send high-level representatives – including the U.S., which is sending John Kerry. When the conference is over he will have less than 120 hours left in office. It’s certain that his presumed successor, Rex Tillerson, and President Trump will take office next Friday with a substantially different perspective on the conference’s topic, Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. But France is determined to hold the conference now, and the Obama administration is determined to participate as if it has discretion over the future of U.S. policy at this point.
Notably, French President Francois Hollande is also on the way out. He will step down in May, after France’s national election, and it’s very likely that his old-guard socialist government will be replaced by a much different, more right-wing government.
France, like the rest of Europe, has destabilizing security problems today on a scale not seen since World War II. But Hollande and his foreign office have a boresight trained on “Israel and the Palestinian Arabs” as the issue for Middle East peace. And of all the things he could be doing, the one he is bent on at all costs is holding this 70-nation conference, this weekend.
An outdated geopolitical idea
We should pause to note, as well, that in 2017, there is something bizarrely driven, even nutty, about the “Israel-Palestinian Arabs” focus for the matter of Middle East peace. Israel and the West Bank territories of Judea and Samaria – in fact, even Gaza – are actually an island of stability right now in a wildly chaotic region. Since January 2011, only Jordan and Saudi Arabia among their near neighbors have avoided at least one of the following: coups, civil wars, collapses of internal order, armed invasion. (And Saudi Arabia, while not invaded, has nevertheless faced border incursions and cross-border missile attacks from Yemen.) But Israel has avoided them all, and managed to keep Gaza from getting out of hand.
Iran and ISIS are the big menaces to Middle East peace in 2017, with the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman Islamist cohort emerging right behind them. It actually makes no sense now to set “Israel and the Palestinian Arabs” as the centerpiece for deliberations on Middle East peace, when they so manifestly are not the driving catalyst of instability.
But France and the conferencing nations are determined to take “Israel-Palestinian Arabs” as their peace premise. So it is extra-surreal that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority’s representatives will be attending the conference on Sunday. As Israel’s Tzipi Hotovely put it, it’s like holding a wedding ceremony without the bride or the groom.
For public consumption, Israel is taking a sanguine view of the conference – basically assuming that it can’t amount to much. And we can certainly hope not. But given the rapid succession of extraordinary events over the last year, and the hell-bent determination of the nations gathering for the conference, there is no justification for making assumptions one way or the other. In a sign of this most remarkable time, it really isn’t possible to handicap this one…