The decision by the French government to call for a consultative meeting in Paris on 30 May to prepare for an international conference on Israeli–Palestinian peace might have caught many off guard. The French diplomatic initiative had been moving along quietly with few taking it seriously until Paris set a date for what is intended to be a preparatory meeting.
French peace envoy Pierre Vimont has already started his shuttle diplomacy in order to ensure the success of this first round of talks. However, in order to succeed, the French plan needs a number of supporters in order to make the needed breakthrough in what many call an intractable problem.
Using the success of the P5+1 talks that led to the Iran nuclear deal as a model, Paris wants to round up as many international backers as possible behind a clear and focused plan. About twenty countries will be invited to the May meeting, including all of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the EU, Germany, Indonesia and a number of Arab states; the latter include Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia as well as the Arab League. Interestingly, this preparatory meeting will not include Palestinian and Israeli delegations so that the international community can agree on a clear framework that it would want to adopt in preparations for the international conference due to take place next autumn or winter, possibly after the usual deliberations on the fringe of the UN General Assembly meetings. The decision not to invite the Israelis and Palestinians at this stage was made by the French to ensure international support and avoid failure. Paris hopes that the momentum that can be generated by the preparatory meeting will pave the way for the later international conference.
The announcement of a date for the preparatory meeting has given credibility to a process that many didn't have much faith in. Palestinian leaders who have despaired from so much talk about the peace process without many results had initially balked at the plan, preferring instead to go again directly to the Security Council. The announcement of a date and behind-the-scenes French diplomacy brought Palestinian support quickly, though, as expressed by PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and other senior officials.
Naturally the Palestinians are the weakest link and the big question is how the Israelis will act and how much effort the US will invest in this process. French officials are happy that while Israel has yet to endorse this international process publicly, it has not opposed it. The Israelis appear to be waiting to see the international reaction and, most importantly, where Washington stands on it.
The White House, of course, is in a bit of prickle in terms of what it can and can't do. While wanting to make sure that a Democrat wins the November presidential election, the Obama administration doesn't want to give Republicans yet another reason to whip up anti-peace sentiment during the already controversial primary campaign.
If any peace talks are to succeed there has to be a price to pay for the party that obstructs the process. For a long time, Israel has attempted to spin the situation to make it look like it wants peace, and that it is the Palestinians living under occupation who are the party blocking a return to negotiations.
In the Camp David talks at the end of the Clinton administration, the Israelis colluded with the Americans to make out that it was Yasser Arafat who had rejected a "generous deal" and thus scuppered the discussions. This narrative has since been well and truly debunked. Among those who have set the record straight is none other than Robert Malley, who is now a member of Obama's inner National Security team.
The Israelis will not be able to avoid the momentum of a 20 country event that will most probably produce a nine-month road plan placing the conflict and the parties involved under the international spotlight.
Israel is also going to be under pressure not to abandon the process because failure will carry a heavy price. When this French initiative was announced, the then Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made it clear that if the conference fails to produce a negotiated agreement Paris will be honour-bound to accept the will of the French people and recognise Palestine on the 1967 borders.
No one expects that the effort that Pierre Vimont has agreed to make will be easy, but there is no doubt that the people of the region who have suffered under Israel's decades-long occupation are looking for a process that will end this nightmare and grant the people of Palestine the right to live in freedom.
Daoud Kuttab is an award winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on www.twitter.com/daoudkuttab
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.