This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 04/02/2011
The Quartet on Middle East peace will meet on the sidelines of the Munich security conference tomorrow to discuss the current impasse facing the Palestinian-Israeli search for peace. Breaking this impasse will depend largely on whether the Quartet is prepared to take a qualitative shift in the way it does business.
The Middle East "peace process" is in serious trouble. After years of fruitless negotiations, Israel's occupation is still firmly entrenched, eroding what hope remains for establishing a sovereign Palestinian state and concluding a just and lasting peace based on the two-state solution. Recent efforts by the United States to revive stalled peace talks have been nothing short of disastrous.
In the absence of a neutral and principled third party, the vast inequalities separating Palestinians and Israelis have doomed bilateral negotiations to failure. The overall power disparities between occupier and occupied have been transposed to the negotiating table.
The United States throughout has been either unwilling or incapable of playing the role of an impartial and principled mediator or an "even-handed peace broker." Notwithstanding lingering questions over their veracity and timing, the so-called ‘Palestine Papers' clearly show successive American governments to have been totally impervious to Palestinian rights and needs, while going out of their way to accommodate Israeli intransigence and violations of international law. Predictably, the results of this American policy have been decidedly detrimental to peace.
America's policy of shielding Israel from international law has created a culture of impunity in which Israel feels enabled to do whatever it wants, instead of doing what is right and what is needed for peace. This impunity explains why Israel continues to build illegal settlements in violation of international law, why it continues its annexation and ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem undeterred, and why it maintains its ruthless blockade over the Gaza Strip despite overwhelming international condemnation.
Israel's sense of exceptionalism has led to its rejection of any accountability. It refused to cooperate with the Goldstone Report, and continues to denounce any criticism of its use of unbridled state violence to target Palestinian civilians, including its 2008-09 attack on Gaza, or its attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in international waters in 2010.
The Quartet has done little to change or challenge this dynamic. On paper, it wields significant diplomatic power given that it is comprised of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. In practice, however, it has served as little more than a flimsy excuse for perpetuating America's monopoly over the beleaguered "peace process." It has also conveniently absolved the United Nations and the European Union from adopting any political initiatives of their own which might be less one-sided than the US approach.
If the Quartet is serious about trying to salvage prospects for a negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then it will need to change the way it does business. So far, the Quartet has lacked the political will, even-handedness and commitment to justice required to bring about peace based on international law.
It is not enough just to repeat the mantra in support of a return to bilateral negotiations. Two decades of such negotiations have eroded the very viability of the two-state solution, and the credibility of the Quartet members. It is already too late for statements without actual enactment and intervention. Israel's immunity from accountability and from compliance with the global rule of law must end. The rights and needs of the Palestinian people must be respected and safeguarded.
While the Palestinian Authority continues to build the institutions of state in spite of the occupation, Israel persists in destroying the territorial, economic and demographic viability of a sovereign Palestinian state. These mutually exclusive policies cannot be reconciled.
To render the Palestinian nation-building process successful, Israel's occupation must end before it does irreparable damage to the two-state solution. The September 2011 deadline is drawing closer. It is imperative that the Quartet take concrete steps before it is too late.
A good start on February 5th is for the Quartet to take a clear and bold decision to recognize the Palestinian state on the 1967 border, with East Jerusalem as its capital. It can also convene an international conference to map out Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 borders within a binding timeline. It is also essential that the Quartet afford the nascent Palestinian state the appropriate protection it needs. The whole region is currently undergoing critical transitions. The challenge before the Quartet now is to prove that it can inject a positive momentum for peace and stability in the midst of this sea of change.
Dr. Hanan Ashrawi is a former Palestinian peace negotiator and an elected member of both the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee and the Palestinian Legislative Council.