Rock-bottom expectations as Middle East Quartet meets to discuss peace efforts

Representatives of US, UN, Russia and EU will 'compare notes' on stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process today as US finds itself opposed by almost whole of rest of world in its attempt to block Palestinian statehood application to UN.
The Palestinian flag is held up as Israeli, Palestinian and foreign activists hold a demonstration in the Arab east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan against Jewish settlement activity in the Palestinian districts of the city. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP Photo
The Palestinian flag is held up as Israeli, Palestinian and foreign activists hold a demonstration in the Arab east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan against Jewish settlement activity in the Palestinian districts of the city. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP Photo

WASHINGTON // With expectations about as low as they could possibly be, members of the international Quartet on Middle East peace meet in Washington today to discuss Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts.

Representatives of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union will "compare notes" on the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process, according to Victoria Nuland, the US state department spokesperson, and discuss ways to get Palestinians and Israelis back around the negotiating table.

The meeting takes place two months before the Palestinians are due to seek admissions to the UN as a full member, an effort the US fiercely opposes. In remarks to reporters on Friday, Ms Nuland called the Palestinian UN effort "not helpful" and said it "could be detrimental to our ability to get parties back to the table". Visiting Palestinian officials, on condition of anonymity, said that in private, US officials had objected to the undertaking in unusually strong language.

Nevertheless, Palestinians are set to forge ahead with the effort. On Wednesday, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told delegates at a convention in Washington of the American Federation of Ramallah that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was determined to see through the admission process.

The application needs UN Security Council approval and is likely to meet a US veto. If that happens, Mr Erekat said, the PLO will go to the UN's General Assembly to seek admittance as a non-member state, for which the Palestinians would need the support of just over half the 192 member states.

As it is, said Mr Erekat, Palestinians can count on the support of 157 nations. By September, he said, "we hope the number will be in the 170s."

Such an overwhelming level of international support for Palestinian statehood is partly what the US hopes to avoid in September. Washington has repeatedly urged the Palestinians to drop their attempts to go to the UN, arguing that statehood must be secured through US-mediated bilateral negotiations with Israel alone.

Geoffrey Aronson, director of research and publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, said the main thrust of US diplomacy at the moment is to put the "UN effort on the part of the PLO into a box. That's where all the energy is expended."

The US will try to bring Quartet members along, Mr Aronson said, as it has in the past. The joke, he noted, was that the Quartet was really "4 minus 3", and he dismissed Monday's meet as "largely a sideshow".

"We don't want anyone playing in our sandbox. [The peace process] has been an American-led process for quite some time. The Americans want to keep this issue in their pockets," he said.

But US-sponsored negotiations have been stalled since Israel decided not to renew a partial moratorium on settlement construction in late September 2010, barely three weeks after direct talks had been launched to much fanfare in Washington.

Palestinians refuse to negotiate while Israel is building in settlements, an act they say prejudices the outcome of those negotiations. Barack Obama, the US president, seemed to agree early in his presidency, but once Israel dug its heels in, the view in Washington has changed. The US is now urging Palestinians to come back to the table "without preconditions" - in other words, drop their demand for a settlement construction freeze.

That position is endorsed across the domestic American political spectrum, as is the administration's opposition to the Palestinian UN effort. On Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a resolution that threatens the Palestinian Authority with a suspension of US aid should a unity government be formed that includes members of Hamas, the Islamist movement that won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006.

It also stipulated that Palestinians should "cease all efforts at circumventing the negotiation process, including through a unilateral declaration of statehood or by seeking recognition of a Palestinian state from other nations or the United Nations."

The resolution, submitted by Eric Cantor, a senior Republican, and Steny Hoyer, a senior Democrat - the second- and eighth-ranked members of the House in terms of campaign contributions from pro-Israel groups in 2010, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics - was approved by an overwhelming 407-6 vote. It came after a similar vote in the US Senate that was adopted unanimously on June 28.

Such domestic constraints leave American diplomacy hostage to Israeli whims, said Mark Perry, an independent political and military analyst based in Washington, and renders it less and less effective.

"Our objection to the Palestinian UN effort is Israel's objection. In other words, Israel is more important to the US than the sum total of all other nations in the world. Meanwhile, we can't get the Palestinians to do what we want, and we can't get the Israelis to end their settlement construction," Mr Perry said.

Palestinians understand those constraints, said Mr Erekat on Wednesday. Palestinians, he said, had welcomed Mr Obama's speech on the Middle East on May 19, in which he called for a Palestinian state to be created on the 1967 armistice lines with agreed land swaps.

But the PLO also sees itself up against a clock. In the past four weeks alone, the Israeli government approved 900 new settlement units in the Gilo settlement, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and 600 units in existing settlements elsewhere around Bethlehem as well as around Nablus.

On Thursday, for the first time in three years, Israel expropriated Palestinian land, as the first step to legalise a settlement outpost, Hayovel, northeast of Ramallah.

Such actions, Mr Erekat said, speaking on the sidelines of Wednesday's convention, are ultimately what matter. "These are facts that destroy prospects for a negotiated solution," he said. In this context, he said, the Palestinian UN effort should be seen as "the main way" to preserve the two-state solution.

"There is no contradiction between our efforts at the UN and negotiations to find a two-state solution."

Published: July 11, 2011 04:00 AM


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