A former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of France, Vice-President of FEPS and a Director of the Jean Jaurès Foundation, Jean-Marc Ayrault is the most recent international political leader to have organised a peace conference in the Middle East – on 15 January 2017. Whilst he rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas seems to be a sign of hope for Palestinian unity, which is a condition, in his view, for talks with the Israelis, Jean-Marc Ayrault is very critical of the Israeli settlements and their impact on the two-state solution.
How do you interpret the resolution of this conflict?
It is a matter of justice concerning the promise of two states living in peace, side by side and in safety.
Which previous conflict resolutions could serve as a model?
It is difficult to compare conflicts such as this one, with its unique historical background. However, many countries have experienced violence, particularly Ireland. My Irish counterpart has always supported our efforts as his country has known bloodshed. They have always been constructive, unlike other, less cooperative European countries.
What exactly is your view of Europe’s position?
Until now, Europe’s stance has been to assist the Palestinian Authority in laying the foundation for a future Palestinian State but the EU could be more involved than it currently is.
Is that what motivated you to organise the conference in Paris last January?
A sort of despondency had taken root, a kind of resignation by the international community, showing an increasing disinterest regarding this issue that is so crucial to world peace.
Have you been able to rely on European support?
Germany was ready to follow France’s lead, alongside the Nordic countries. This was less true of some Central and Eastern European countries. Some even told us to wait for Trump to take office (editor’s note: the conference took place on 15 January, and the inauguration ceremony on 20 January). I replied that holding the conference was necessary to show a real international commitment.
What conclusions have you drawn from this conference, ten months later?
The goal was to bring together the whole world, particularly America. It should not be left to America to solve every problem, but given their weight, there will never be a resolution without their contribution. When I was a minister, therefore, I was in constant contact with my counterpart John Kerry.
How did he view the situation?
He observed, as I did, that the building of settlements around Jerusalem – and even, in some cases, enclaves within the West Bank – was gradually reducing the space available for a viable Palestinian State. This deleterious process of illegal settlement, condemned by successive UN Security Council resolutions, must be stopped.
Citizens and especially progressive activists struggle to understand why this key issue has been put to one side. Do you understand their dismay?
Absolutely. If people in Israel are shocked when the word ‘settlement’ is used, it is nonetheless a reality.
How do you explain America’s apathy?
I was not afraid to point out to John Kerry why this cause is just and the reasons why it must be dealt with. Some consider it to be of secondary importance, the main struggle for them being the fight against terrorism and Daesh. I myself believe that the two are interrelated.
Do you fear that there will be a new flare-up?
Without wishing to be a harbinger of doom, I cannot rule out that a section of the Palestinian population could become susceptible to persuasion by extremist propaganda. Until now, Daesh have had little interest in the Palestinian cause but they could easily seize the opportunity to take up the cause overnight. My counterparts in the Arab countries have all been preoccupied by this issue, but we must succeed in convincing all sides.
Do you think that this could have consequences in France, for example, where numerous Jews and Muslims live?
France has the largest Jewish and Arabic community in Europe. We are listening to their concerns. On the one hand, we must show that defence of the two-state solution cannot be at the expense of Israel’s security, which is a fundamental concern, but we must not abandon the two-state objective, and, above all, not waste time.
In practical terms, how can this goal be achieved?
Recognition of Israel is a prerequisite. Then, reconciling the Palestinian people, divided between Hamas in Gaza on the one hand, and Fatah, with President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on the other. At the same time, convincing the Israeli authorities that a political solution is in their medium and long-term security interests.
You have had the opportunity to meet the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Have your exchanges with him given you hope?
Netanyahu has made it clear to me that he does not believe in it.
What does he believe, in your opinion?
I do not know what his solution is. I believe that he does not actually have one and I find that attitude incredibly dangerous. Officially, he says that he is in favour, but in reality, he has done nothing to help. This is a warning sign. The more time passes, the greater people’s frustration, and the greater the temptation of violence.