The creation of the Quartet by U.S. President George W. Bush was a unique and interesting attempt to develop an effective international mechanism that was not subject to the problematic rules of the game of the United Nations. The new forum was supposed to expand America’s wingspan without the burden of the Security Council and the nearly 200 members of the General Assembly.
The Quartet relegated the U.N. to one of four partners in formulating an international strategy for the Israel-Arab and particularly Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Quartet was intended to give U.S. policy with its known pro-Israel tilt a more balanced image, backed by international consensus. The initiative to give the Quartet its own policy instrument headed by a senior statesman like Tony Blair gave hope to the Middle East peace camp that the international community was really coming to the rescue of stalled final status negotiations.
As of now, following the recent Quartet foreign ministers meeting in Washington, it’s fair to say that disappointment has overwhelmed hope. The foreign ministers dispersed without agreeing on a way to deal with the Palestinian-Arab initiative to ask the U.N. in September for recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines. The senior officials meeting in Washington failed to present an alternative that would prevent the emergence of a new political, security and economic reality in the Middle East, with consequences for the region that no one can predict.
The Quartet’s failure to bring the parties back to the negotiating table in effect positioned the U.N. as the center of decision-making. Lest we forget, the Palestinian decision to appeal to the U.N. follows two years of failed American attempts, backed by the Quartet, to renew direct final-status negotiations.
This failure should not come as a surprise to anyone who has monitored the Quartet’s performance. Ever since its initial triumph in 2003, when it presented the “road map” to Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the Quartet has been heading downhill. The few Israelis and Palestinians who remember this key document and its contents view it as proof of the Quartet’s ineffectiveness. Here it’s sufficient to mention road map phase I that requires Israel to freeze settlement construction and dismantle the outposts. The Quartet has proven incapable of enforcing even this preliminary commitment.
Nor did the Quartet impede U.S. President Barack Obama when he wasted nearly two valuable years in trying to freeze settlement construction. The European Union, Russia and the U.N. did not object to Obama’s decision to veto a Security Council decision to condemn the renewal of construction beyond the green line. America’s three partners gave their blessings to the Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks facilitated by U.S. envoy George Mitchell, but fell silent when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to reveal to Mitchell Israel’s position regarding borders and security. In all these instances, America’s domestic politics took priority over its Quartet partners.
Obama’s May 19 speech, in which he proposed that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations be based on the June 4, 1967 lines with agreed territorial swaps, could have served as the basis of a Quartet consensus and complemented the road map (which states that a final-status agreement will end the occupation that began in 1967) with regard to borders. The Palestinian leadership decided to adopt the principles presented in that speech and announced that if Israel followed suit it would be possible to renew final-status talks and delay the appeal to the U.N.
Yet once again, Obama elected to avoid confrontation with Netanyahu and his friends in Congress and the American Jewish community. And once again, America’s three Quartet partners decided to avoid a quarrel with Obama.
Whenever the U.S. is ready to start the process moving – even at the risk of confrontation with Israel – the Quartet will stand by it. But when the U.S. avoids confrontation with Israel – even at the cost of collapse of the process – the Quartet stands aside. If Maestro Obama does not at the last minute find a way to put negotiations on a safe and true track, the chaos that will visit the territories following U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state will constitute a requiem for the peace process. Responsibility for this crisis and its ramifications for the stormy Middle East will rest squarely with the Quartet.
Akiva Eldar is a columnist and editorial board member at Haaretz and was its U.S. bureau chief. He is coauthor of “Lords of the Land” (2007), about Israeli settlers. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter.