Quartet Meeting Produces Nothing, Highlighting US Failures

The anticipated meeting of the Middle East Quartet (the United States, Russian Federation, United Nations and European Union) took place Monday. The result was what has become pretty standard for Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and peacemaking: nothing.

The Quartet is incapable of doing anything unless the US can do something, and the US refuses to take any action outside the realm of “direct negotiations between” the Israelis and Palestinians. The goal of this meeting was to try to come up with a formula that would bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table.

The failure to come up with that formula led to the Quartet ending the meeting without a statement. There was simply nothing to say.

The Europeans pushed for this meeting, which the US had hoped to postpone to gain more time to bring the Palestinians back to the table. Perhaps it was Washington’s inability to do that which prompted the EU’s insistence; that’s certainly fair speculation.

The framework the Obama Administration presented, according to Ha’aretz, was one where territorial discussions would begin from the 1967 borders and include mutually agreed territorial exchanges, and that Israel would get recognition as the “national home of the Jewish people.”

The Netanyahu government would want much stronger wording for the “Jewish character” of Israel, wording which would clearly bar any return of Palestinian refugees and at least imply the ability to privilege Jews in Israel legally. That would be their price for “conceding” to base talks on the 1967 borders.

On the other side, the Palestinian Authority would see any wording on recognizing a Jewish state as a major concession, possibly too great a one, while the “concession” they were getting is less than their due under international law, and under any reasonable definition of fair negotiations, discussing all the Palestinian territories under Israeli occupation would be axiomatic.

It’s an obvious non-starter for the Palestinians and a tough sell to the Netanyahu government (though surely a Kadima government would accept this).

This embarrassing episode is just one more example of the US failure to recognize that the playing field has changed. The mantra which says that “the conflict can only be resolved through direct negotiations” has worn thin, and the US has no alternative hand to play.

The Palestinian Authority holds on to its legitimacy by the thinnest of margins these days. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the rest of the PA old guard know very well that the people living under Israeli occupation will not tolerate a return to meaningless negotiations. It is no longer an option for them, and no amount of US cajoling or threats can change that.

Yet the US sends Dennis Ross, of all people, a man the Palestinians trust about as much as the average US Citizen trusts the president of Iran, to talk them back to the table.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can freely state that he is prepared to “resume talks tomorrow,” but the Palestinians cannot come back to the table unless a framework is in place to guarantee productive talks. Thus, Netanyahu can argue that the Palestinians are the ones refusing progress, while he can push as hard as he wants for talks “without preconditions” which he knows can drag on forever and lead nowhere.

All of this seems utterly lost on the Obama Administration. It’s frankly stunning that they believe that the Palestinians would see talks beginning with the 1967 borders as some sort of gift to them. And the US continues to run one step, or more, behind Netanyahu at every turn.

With the PA no longer willing, or even able, to play the peace process game of endless negotiations and the Israeli government and, yes, its populace tilting ever more to the right, moving farther and farther away from compromise positions and embracing new demands (like the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, rather than as a sovereign state like every other country in the world), a new strategy is needed.

For once, the Palestinians have forced a move on the US. They are sticking to their demands that construction of settlements be halted. They want the US to frame talks toward a goal of something like existing peace plans such as the Arab Peace Initiative, the Clinton Parameters and similar schemes. They are holding their course for a UN vote recognizing their statehood, despite not having a state.

The US needs to re-evaluate its tactics. The unwavering and uncritical support Congress gives Israel, as expressed in the bills passed in both houses of Congress last week, has always been the single biggest obstacle toward resolving this conflict, bigger than any acts of violence, bravado or expressions of hatred from either the Israelis or Palestinians.

Ever since George H.W. Bush took on the pro-Israel lobby in order to bring Israel to the Madrid peace conference in 1991, successive presidents have been ever more reluctant to fight with Congress or in Congress for a departure from lock-step support of Israel.

Israeli governments have not missed this point, and now neither does the Palestinian Authority.

Ultimately, Obama will have to realize that negotiations between two such unequal parties are never going to lead to a resolution. Either America acts as an honest broker to level the playing field, or it must get out of the way. That goal may have motivated the EU insistence on this meeting. Perhaps the Obama Administration even understands it, and that was the basis for the “excellent conversations” they say they had with their Quartet colleagues.

That’s the thought that leads at least to some small hope. But if the US still doesn’t realize that the game of negotiations that never end but provide Israel with “peacemaking” cover is over, this stalemate is going to go on for a long time until some major event shakes us all out of it.

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He is the former director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the director of education and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published and respected policy analyst. Born in New York City, raised an Orthodox Jew and educated in Yeshiva, Mitchell grew up in an extremist environment that passionately supported the radical Israeli settler movement. His writing has appeared in the Jordan Times, Israel Insider, UN Observer, Middle East Report, Global Dialogue, San Francisco Chronicle, Die Blaetter Fuer Deutsche Und Internationale Politik, Outlook, and in a regular column for a time in Tikkun Magazine. He has been interviewed by various outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor and CNBC Asia. Plitnick graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in Middle Eastern Studies and wrote his thesis on Israeli and Jewish historiography and earned his Masters Degree from the University of Maryland, College Park's School of Public Policy.