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Why the Quartet Turned its Back on the Middle East

By Andrew Wilson

September is fast approaching, and with it another Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations. Last year, when the Palestinians made their case for statehood to the UN Security Council, the world community responded diplomatically through the Quartet of the U.S., the EU, Russia, and the UN, attempting to push Israel and the Palestinians toward bilateral negotiations. Yet after exploratory talks between the parties in Amman last January ended, the Quartet lost the will to keep that effort alive. This time around, it is unclear whether the Quartet still has the credibility and, more importantly, the strength to re-energize the peace-process. Regardless of the outcome of the Palestinians’ UN bid, the Quartet will be needed to push the sides together, but so far, they are nowhere to be seen, lacking the political will and the unity to push the two sides together.

Let us review the history of the Quartet’s work over the past year. On September 23, 2011, in response to the Palestinian Authority’s petition to be accepted as a member state of the UN, the principals of the Quartet: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov set a timeline for completing bilateral negotiations before the end of 2012: three months for both sides to submit comprehensive proposals on borders and security followed by six months of direct negotiations aimed at making “substantial progress.”

The context of this proposal was the preceding months of bickering between Israel and the Palestinians over the preconditions that each would require before entering direct negotiations. Israel called on the Palestinians to first recognize Israel as a “Jewish State." The Palestinians wanted Israel to first implement a settlement freeze. Neither side would give in, and despite the exploratory talks in Amman, this impasse persists.

Perhaps for this reason, the Quartet, in its wisdom, did not require direct talks to begin immediately but looked first to a three month period where each side would submit their proposals on borders and security. This was to allow for some impetus to develop in the negotiating process, before tackling the impasse over direct talks.

On October 27, 2011, after each side had met with representatives of the Quartet, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the two sides accepted the Quartet’s approach and agreed to come forward with proposals on security and territory issues within the following three months. At the same time, both sides pledged to look for ways to resume direct negotiations. The diplomatic clock on the three-month deadline would run out January 26.

The Palestinians honored the Quartet’s request for a comprehensive plan on borders. On November 14, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat presented Quartet representatives with two documents. The first proposed the borders of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, but also indicated a willingness to swap 1.9 percent of West Bank territory with that of Israel. The second document, dealing with security arrangements, consented to the demilitarization of the West Bank, permitted an international peacekeeping force on the Israeli border and in the Jordan Valley, and committed the Palestinians to refrain from forging military alliances with countries hostile to Israel.

The next day the Quartet delegation met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiator, Isaac Molho, and requested to receive a counterproposal on both issues by the end of January. Molho replied that Israel would not cooperate with this approach, saying the Quartet should instead get the Palestinians to return to direct talks. Israel staked out a position requiring direct talks at the outset before proposals on borders and security would be offered.

However, within weeks the Quartet had muddied the waters, when on December 15 it called for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks “without delay or preconditions” while giving Israel a pass on the request for its presentation on borders and security. This was the Quartet’s first failure to show resolve, and it exposed disunity between its members, especially after the United States signaled through its ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, a week earlier that it supported the Israeli position.

On January 3, exploratory talks between Erekat and Molho began in Amman, Jordan, under the sponsorship of Jordan’s King Abdullah II. At the first meeting, in the presence of representatives of the Quartet, the Palestinians presented their proposals on borders and security to Israel, and the Israelis promised to respond with a proposal of their own. The Palestinians expressed their hope that this exchange of proposals could occur before the Quartet’s deadline of January 26, and that the obstacles could be removed to beginning direct negotiations on that date, in accordance with the Quartet’s blueprint. But they refused to continue discussions after that date in the absence of Israel’s proposal on borders, which could be interpreted as direct talks in the absence of a settlement freeze.

As the Amman talks drew to a close on January 26, Molho gave Erekat a presentation that was limited to a list of basic principles, without any maps or percentages of lands slotted to be swapped. The exact contents are a matter of dispute, but certainly it was not the comprehensive proposal on borders requested by the Quartet.

Molho also expressed dissatisfaction with the January 26 date and proposed a new calendar, counting three months from the January 3 start date of the Amman talks. By April 3, he declared, Israel would present its comprehensive proposal on borders and security. This presumed that the two sides would continue talking, in order that the exchange of proposals would occur within the context of direct talks, as was Israel’s preferred approach. Yet the talks could hardly continue without resolving the problem of preconditions—especially the Palestinians’ demand for a settlement freeze. Early February saw efforts by Quartet envoys, Tony Blair and Ban Ki-moon, to induce the two sides to continue talking, but to no avail.

This writer was under no illusions about the difficulty of achieving even the goal of an Israeli presentation on borders and security by April 3. I wrote at the time that Israel and the Palestinians would have to make consistent and serious efforts during the months of February and March to lay the groundwork for Israel to offer an acceptable proposal. Some diplomatic arm-twisting would have helped, but the Quartet’s level of engagement was woefully inadequate. April 3 came and went without any presentation by Israel.

In the months that followed, punctuated by denunciations, exchanges of letters, and the aborted efforts of Netanyahu’s one-time coalition partner Shaul Mofaz, hardly any public statement by the Quartet can be found. 

While each side blamed the other for the impasse over direct talks, the Quartet’s original request for separate presentations on borders and security before initiating direct talks was forgotten. Israel had its reasons to avoid making its presentation, which would be a political hot potato because it would inevitably infringe on the settlement enterprise. The Palestinian side, for its part, did little to remind Israel of its obligation to make this presentation, so intent was it on protesting the settlements.

The world community needed to push both sides to put border proposals on the table. The contours of the compromises that could lead to a solution would have been more visible. With reasonable offers from each side, the obfuscating issues such as preconditions could have been managed. Thus, in late March, Abbas reportedly told U.S. President Barack Obama that Palestine would return to talks if Israel fulfilled the Quartet’s requirement by submitting its proposal on borders and security.

The only one that could have kept the peace process on track was the Quartet itself, the very organization charged with this mission. Yet the Quartet lacked the consistent resolve required to hold both sides accountable.

The world required more from the Quartet. It needed even-handed, muscular diplomacy that demands accountability. The Quartet failed both Israel and Palestine by not pushing them hard enough to submit their plans for a border. For that, the world should hold the Quartet accountable.

There are regional issues such as Syria where the members of the Quartet are in disagreement. And the U.S. is diplomatically hobbled by the election season. Nevertheless, the international community has not wavered in its desire to see Israel and the Palestine settle their conflict through negotiations. As the Quartet was set up as the very instrument to implement that desire, will it do better this time around, when the Palestinian Authority once again brings its case to the United Nations?

Someone should ask Catherine Ashton or Robert Serry the UN Quartet representative, why the Quartet stood by after the end of the Amman talks, and why it never called on Israel to keep to the timetable. That timetable, which requires separate proposals on borders and securities by each party, is still desired by the world community.

The world needs a Quartet that is unified and credible. It is time for the Quartet to give us a reason to believe in its leadership.

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Andrew Wilson, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

 

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