The Netanyahu government’s objection to France’s proposal to convene an international peace conference is not out of step with traditional Israeli foreign policy. Over the years, Israeli governments have generally opposed or expressed little enthusiasm for international conferences aiming at promotion of a peace settlement. Their participation was usually the result of pressure by a superpower, historic circumstances, or a feeling that Israel had no other choice.
At the end of the Arab Revolt in 1939, with WWII approaching, the Zionist movement agreed to participate in an international conference in London, which included a Palestinian delegation and senior representatives from five Arab states. As a result of Palestinian/Arab refusal to sit down with the Zionists, Britain was forced to negotiate with each party separately, although Jews and Arabs met behind the scenes in unofficial capacities. The failure of this conference led to the publication of the British White Paper of 1939, which seriously restricted to Jewish immigration to Palestine.
The second conference was held in Lausanne in 1949. Israel was about resubmit its request to join the UN in May 1949 and could not be seen as an opponent to a UN conference addressing the consequences of the 1948 Arab-Israel War, primarily the question of refugees. Here, too, representatives met separately to no avail.
Twenty-five years passed until the next international conference met in Geneva in December 1973. Golda Meir and her government were overwhelmed by the repercussions of the October War, could not refuse the American-Soviet demand for a conference a mere ten days before the elections. Jordan and Egypt attended, Syria did not, and the conference ended after two days with no notable achievements. However, it served as a springboard for bilateral talks with Egypt and Syria, which ultimately led to the signing of two Disengagement Agreements between Israel and Egypt (1974 and 1975), and between Israel and Syria (1975), under the leadership of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In the 1970s and 1980s, numerous attempts reconvene the Geneva conference failed. Israel and Syria both obstructed these efforts, each for its own reasons. The London Agreement, signed in April 1987 by Shimon Peres and Jordan’s King Hussein, outlined the principles for an international conference under the auspices of the UN, but this attempt was foiled by Yitzchak Shamir, prime minister of the unity government at the time.
Shamir, however, was eventually forced to participate in the Madrid Conference of October 1991 following the collapse of the USSR and the Gulf War. US pressure, combined with the fact that the conference was attended by relevant Arab states, including Syria, forced Shamir to partake in a gathering attended by a JordanianPalestinian delegation, some of whose delegates were not PLO members (but effectively received instructions from the organization). The Madrid Conference jumpstarted three tracks of bilateral talks: with Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians, and the regional players also conducted multilateral talks on the issues of arms control, environment, water and refugees. Although the tracks with Syria and the Palestinians soon stalled, deadlock with the Palestinians prompted the opening of the secret communications channel that led to the Oslo Accords. The Syrian track can also be considered as the prelude to the negotiations that took place later in the 1990s.
The 2007 Annapolis Conference convened by the US was the last international conference designed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to date. Along with representatives of Israel, the PLO, the Quartet, Egypt, and Jordan, attendees included representatives from several countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel such as Saudi Arabia and Syria. It was the first and only time Israel was a willing partner in such an international process. As in the past, the conference was to serve as the starting point for negotiations between the Olmert Government and Abu Mazen. Indeed, these talks continued until the end of Olmert’s administration and almost resulted in an agreement.
What can we learn from this short history of peace conferences? First, except for the Annapolis Conference, Israel was never a willing participant. It was typically forced to attend due to historic circumstances or international pressure. Second, Israel’s opposition to such conferences stemmed from a fear of being isolated and subjected to heavy international pressure that would force it to agree to policies the government deemed unfavorable. Moreover, Israel consistently feared a unified Arab front that would naturally be based on the Arab lowest common denominator. Third, Israel has always believed that direct bilateral talks allowed it to retain the greatest flexibility and has consistently supported direct negotiations with the Palestinians, with US mediation at most. Fourth, no conference has led to a breakthrough, although they have, at times, served as an important stepping stone toward a new formal or informal negotiation channel. Finally, no international conference has damaged Israel.
In light of these conclusions, the refusal of the Netanyahu government to participate in the Paris peace conference should come as no surprise. And yet, Israel’s portrayal as a country that opposes peace causes it tremendous international harm. Therefore, an international conference such as those held in Geneva, Madrid or Annapolis, might be a launching pad for a new negotiation process. If, however, the government has no desire to promote peace with the Palestinians, participation in such a conference would be quite risky, especially if France’s position is perceived to be pro-Palestinian.
Clearly an agreement can be reached only through negotiations between the parties themselves if they are willing. If Netanyahu hopes that Prime Minister al-Sisi and the Saudis will throw him a lifeline and save him from the deluge of peace proposals in the form of regional conferences, one might ask, what is the point of another international conference? In the absence of genuine Israeli and Palestinian motivation and determination to solve the conflict, no international conference will bring us closer to our ultimate goal of peace.