This article was originally published in The Economist on January 17, 2017.
Tel Aviv — It was, even by the dispiriting standards of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, a futile concept: a peace conference without either of the warring parties. On January 15th diplomats from more than 70 countries flew to Paris for a summit against which Israeli officials had been inveighing for weeks. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, called it “rigged” and his defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, compared it to the Dreyfus trial. So the French government, keen to avoid the embarrassment of having Israel refuse to attend, did not invite either side. It was “like a wedding without a bride and groom,” quipped Naftali Bennett, Israel’s right-wing education minister.
After a full day of debate, the diplomats issued a two-page declaration that urged both sides to “commit to the two-state solution…[and to] take urgent steps in order to reverse the current negative trends on the ground.” If that sounds familiar, it should. Parts of it were copied verbatim from the closing statement of the previous Paris peace conference, held in June.
Reactions to it were apathetic. Israelis are more preoccupied with a criminal investigation of Mr Netanyahu, who has been questioned several times this month over alleged corruption (which he denies). Talk of an early election is in the air. Among Palestinians, politics is as stagnant as ever: the West Bank and Gaza Strip are run by rival parties, the nationalist Fatah movement and the Islamists of Hamas respectively; the unpopular Mahmoud Abbas is in the 13th year of what is meant to be four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
The real target audience of the organisers was in midtown Manhattan, not on the Mediterranean. No one knows exactly how Donald Trump will approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His views on the subject (as well as many others) are unclear and sometimes contradictory. The Israeli right is gleeful, however, about his pledge to move America’s embassy to Jerusalem, and by his choice for ambassador: David Friedman, who has said Israel should annex the West Bank, a move that would preclude the formation of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish one.
Moreover Mr Trump has said that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will be the one to broker the peace between Israel and the Palestinians that has eluded all who have tried. He is hardly an honest broker: the Kushner family runs a foundation that has donated tens of thousands of dollars to West Bank settlements.
All of this is anathema to the diplomats who gathered in Paris. They warned against “unilateral steps” in Jerusalem, a not-so-subtle dig at Mr Trump’s embassy plans, and reaffirmed last month’s UN Security Council vote to censure Israel over the settlements. The outgoing Obama administration declined to veto the measure, which passed 14-0. “There is a unity in the international community regarding the two-state solution,” said the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.
That unity is already showing a few cracks, though. Britain did not sign the Paris declaration, and expressed “particular reservations” about holding the conference so soon before the handover in America. Last month a spokesman for Theresa May, the British prime minister, criticised John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, for calling Israel’s government the “most right-wing” in history (though she says she still supports a two-state deal). Diplomats see an attempt to curry favour with Mr Trump.
In truth, the Paris meeting felt less like a diplomatic summit than a farewell concert thrown by an ageing rock band. Mr Kerry, who from mid-2013 led nine months of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, has just a few days left in office. The host, President François Hollande of France, will step down this spring. And their catalogue, once edgy, now seems anachronistic. A plurality of Israeli Jews favour annexing the West Bank; two-thirds of Palestinians believe the two-state solution is no longer viable. Diplomats promised to meet again in Paris later this year. It may be difficult to justify the trip.