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Wednesday, July 27, 2011
The Quartet Is Dying From Myriad Political Shortcomings
By Nagi Shurrab
In 2002, the Quartet was formed simultaneously with the initiation of the “road map,” which imposes mutual and parallel obligations on Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians were asked to cease all forms of violence and armed resistance, and Israelis were asked to stop building settlements, in stages leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and the resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict.
Through this, the Quartet succeeded in creating a basis for a settlement after repeated wars made it difficult for Palestinians and Israelis to give in to each other’s demands, each fearing obliteration of its respective rights to exist. The Quartet offered new hope that a balanced, realistic and acceptable settlement might be reached, despite the persistence of this longest of world conflicts.
Since its inception, however, the Quartet has met regularly without achieving any concrete results or developing a binding plan of action for the parties. It has been unable to use its framework of international legitimacy to bend Palestinian and Israeli demands – because any settlement cannot be based on the maximum of either party’s aspirations.
The failure of Quartet representatives to issue a statement recently calling for a resumption of negotiations with mutual guarantees for the parties, then, raises the question: Why did they fall short?
The reason for the breakdown in direct talks is each party’s refusal to waive its claims, with Palestinians insisting Israel accept a contiguous and sovereign state on the 1967 borders and the cessation of Israeli settlement in all of the Palestinian territories before talks continue. Israel, for its part, is demanding that Palestinians recognize the “Jewishness” of the state of Israel and that the vision of the Palestinian state be consistent with Israeli security needs.
In truth, the failure of the Quartet cannot be viewed separately from the political milieu within which it operates. There are many factors at work related to the nature of the conflict itself, the complexity of the issues at hand, the composition of and political constraints on the Quartet itself, the will of the international community, as well as the Palestinian and Israeli domestic political context. Further, the new Arab regional atmosphere is also playing a role.
Speaking about the Quartet itself, there is a conflict between its members, who represent on the one hand the international community through the United Nations and the secretary general, and on the other hand the United States, which actually established the committee and generated the vision of the road map. The U.S. cannot be separated from its domestic political environment, which is driven by a pro-Israel lobby that puts pressure on decision-makers not to act against Israel’s settlement enterprise. Herein lie the roots of the Quartet’s failure to reach consensus.
The U.S. usually does not propose positions or visions accepting a Palestinian state unless Israel has rubber-stamped them, thereby limiting the Americans’ ability to effectively manage the conflict. The rest of the parties in the Quartet are not strong enough to impose their own visions. Russia’s position might be closer to the Palestinians, but the European Union does not stray far from the U.S. position and the United Nations, while wielding the strength of international legitimacy, only takes positions complimentary to the Quartet.
As a result, the Quartet was not even able to issue a final statement promoting negotiations or providing guarantees that might prevent Palestinians from resorting to the U.N. to gain recognition for the state of Palestine. Notably, it also, however, did not issue a statement recognizing the “Jewishness” of Israel, as Israel sought, or recognizing the 1967 borders as Palestinians wanted.
Playing into the Quartet’s failure is the fact that both Palestinians and Israelis appear to lack confidence in its role. Palestinians did their part in the road map and got little in return; they now prefer to turn to the U.N. rather than wait for the Quartet to act. Add to that the crisis in Palestinian leadership, with Hamas strongly opposing negotiations with Israel, the Palestinians’ inability to accept Israel’s “Jewishness” requirement, and President Mahmoud Abbas’ conviction that he has made enough concessions for the sake of negotiations.
At the same time, Israel’s positions do not lend themselves to the continuation of negotiations. Israel’s coalition government and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman still do not accept the idea of a Palestinian state. They believe Palestinians have “alternative homelands” in the Arab world, and therefore have conditioned talks on Palestinians accepting Israel’s “Jewishness,” knowing that Palestinians cannot do this. Baldly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot succeed in negotiations with Palestinians if he wants to keep his governing coalition. We seem to be stuck with this trend, as right-wing parties and settlers continue to make gains in Israeli politics.
Further, as mentioned, the Arab world is in flux and is being transformed. This political turning inward makes the position of the Arabs less effective at influencing the Quartet. This was reflected in the recent meeting of the Arab Monitoring Committee, which chose to evade its responsibilities and support the Palestinian bid to go to the U.N. instead of pressuring the Quartet to come up with a formula for a return to negotiations. At the same time, these regional transformations have given traction to the Arab sense that Israel has no credibility in negotiations, which may explain some of the Palestinian determination in standing by its demands.
The Quartet’s failure to issue a statement at this time reflects all these challenges. Compare this situation, for example, to its Sept. 21, 2010 statement demanding that Israel halt all settlement activity. The Quartet’s failure, however, is one more sign that we are moving from the management of the conflict to a staged regional resolution.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 27/07/2011
-Nagi Shurrab is professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter