The Middle East Quartet, the diplomatic powers focused on encouraging the peace process, is set to meet in Washington Monday with the aim of paving the way for a relaunch of long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Prompting the unusual midsummer meeting of the four powers – the United States, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations – is no sudden uptick in violence, and certainly no signs that the two sides are itching to get back to the negotiating table, which has sat unused since last September.
Instead, the impetus is the Palestinian plan to seek a vote by the UN General Assembly in September recognizing the state of Palestine.
Fearing that such a move would divide the international community at a particularly sensitive moment in the Arab world, and could ultimately feed a return to violence, the Quartet wants to set acceptable terms for both sides to resume peace talks in the coming weeks.
The idea is that a return to direct talks broadly following an outline set by President Obama in his May speech on the Middle East would allow the Palestinians to back down from their insistence on a statehood vote.
But even though Monday’s talks will feature the Quartet’s power players – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will host the meeting – arriving at a restart of peace negotiations is anything but assured.
“The challenge now facing the Quartet is twofold,” says Khaled Elgindy, a visiting fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. The first hurdle will be reaching a “genuine consensus” among the US, EU, UN, and Russia on a statement capable of initiating “a meaningful negotiation process between Israelis and Palestinians.”
But even if the Quartet can do that, the looming second uncertainty is “whether anything they say will be sufficient to convince the Palestinians not to go ahead with the UN vote,” says Mr. Elgindy, who is a former member of the Palestinian negotiating support team.
The Palestinians say they would return to the table (and they hint they could shelve the September statehood bid) if talks on borders are based on the pre-1967 lines – as outlined in Mr. Obama’s speech – and if Israel declares a new settlement freeze.
Yet while Israeli officials say they have been in talks with US officials on acceptable terms for relaunching negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintains the 1967 lines would leave Israel with “indefensible” borders – and he has shown no willingness to renew a settlement freeze.
At the same time, he says declaration of a Palestinian state and its symbolic recognition by the UN General Assembly would poison the peace process for “decades.”
But for some Middle East analysts – given that both Israelis and Palestinians say they want a return to talks – finding language for a statement that both sides could sign onto may be the easy part for the Quartet.
The real danger is a Quartet effort that succeeds in relaunching talks for talks’ sake, but which lacks any hope of paving the way for meaningful and sustained negotiations, says Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
“The prospects of getting a Quartet statement that the two sides can buy into are actually much better than they were just a short while ago, but the real question here is whether there is anything that can lead to serious and sustained negotiations,” says Mr. Miller. “Where it begins to enter the danger zone is when you raise expectations once again – even though the chances of something real and sustained aren’t there.”
Miller, who served as an adviser to six secretaries of state on the Middle East peace process, says the worst thing now would be one more high-profile ceremony where the US president brings the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together on a stage to launch talks. “It’s the kind of scene we’ve had six or seven times in the last decade or so,” he says – only to have it all collapse within weeks or even days.
The Brookings Institution’s Elgindy agrees, saying the issue is not more negotiations, but actually getting to a solution.
“The problem … is not in getting the parties to the negotiating table – which has occurred off-and-on for nearly 20 years – but in getting them out of negotiations once they start and into a process that might actually lead to an end of the conflict,” he says. “Thus far, neither the US nor the Quartet has put forth a plan that has any reasonable chance of achieving that goal.”
The best option Miller sees is what he calls the “iceberg” plan, where very little of a relaunched process would be visible, but where most of the action would be “below the water line” – discreet negotiations between the two parties with parallel American participation and support.
Miller says he envisions a negotiating period of perhaps six months, during which time all sides would agree not to “grandstand,” or run out to microphones to make political points.
The problem is that such a plan is unlikely to be enough to dissuade the Palestinians from pursuing the UN option in September, as Miller admits. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said enough times to convince most analysts that it will take significant concessions from Mr. Netanyahu – something virtually no one sees forthcoming.
And while even the pro-Palestinian Elgindy says September will only produce “a largely symbolic vote at the UN,” he adds that blame for that falls on the US and the international community, which have failed to resolve the conflict.
The Palestinian decision to go to the UN, he says, “is not the cause of the current crisis but rather a symptom.”