The peace process stuck in a rut of malaise

Analysis The Quartet met this week for the first time in months. But with the US unable to lead, and the Palestinians and Israel unwilling to play along, it is a symptom of what it was meant to fix.

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The Quartet met this week for the first time in months. But with the US unable to lead, and the Palestinians and Israel unwilling to play along, it is a symptom of what it was meant to fix. Omar Karmi reports from Washington

The Quartet of Middle East mediators - the US, the UN, the EU and Russia - met Wednesday on the sidelines of the G8 foreign ministers' meeting in Washington. But the Quartet's first high-level meeting since December passed almost without notice in the US. Neither The Washington Post nor The New York Times had a story about it in yesterday's editions.

In part, say observers, the lack of interest is due to other, more pressing issues. The violence in Syria dominates the attention of the foreign-policy circuit in Washington, where Iran's nuclear programme is also a perennial concern.

The shrug of the shoulders that greeted the Quartet meeting also indicates the malaise the US-sponsored peace process is in. At the meeting, Quartet members criticised Israeli settlement building and Palestinian rocket fire and urged both Palestinians and Israelis to avoid "actions that undermine trust". Mediators also called on donors to meet US$1.1 billion (Dh4bn) in aid pledges to the Palestinians.

But with the process stuck, an institution designed to support US-led peace attempts has become almost an irrelevance, said Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine.

The role of the Quartet has been diminished from "dictating a diplomatic agenda", to being primarily concerned with the question of aid, Mr Ibish said. While he said the disbursement of aid was a crucial function, the "almost complete lack of interest" in Wednesday's meeting is a "bellwether of how moribund the entire structure of diplomacy is".

The Obama administration seems to have little enthusiasm left for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the resolution of which Barack Obama, the US president, once described as a "US national security interest". With no US leadership, there is no direction for the Quartet, said Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now.

"The Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, which the Quartet has been shepherding, has run out of steam, mainly due to lack of US leadership. That does not mean, however, that the Quartet should not continue to try to rekindle the process. Any movement toward peace is better than no movement at all."

Nevertheless, little progress is likely to be made in an American presidential election year. Foreign policy as a whole is on hold, said Mr Ibish.

"President Obama is perceived in the US to have a generally good record on foreign policy. He got Osama bin Laden, withdrew the troops from Iraq and says he will do the same in Afghanistan, for which there is general support. The last thing his campaign staff want now is a foreign policy issue that counts against him," Mr Ibish said.

Mr Obama tried in the early stages of his presidency to convince Israel to freeze settlements, a key Quartet condition for bringing the sides back to negotiations. The failure to do so, however, weakened him with both sides.

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu's government rebuffed what pressure there was, while Israel's many supporters in the US suggested Mr Obama did not have Israel's best interests at heart.

Republican presidential hopefuls seized on that suggestion. Mitt Romney, who is to be Mr Obama's Republican rival in November's presidential election, even vowed to "get on the phone to my friend Bibi" [Mr Netanyahu's nickname] before taking any steps in the peace process.

Despondent that even the US president could not force an issue they see as detrimental to hopes for a two-state solution, Palestinians, meanwhile, have refused to negotiate as long as settlement construction continues.

Yesterday, Palestinians rejected an invitation from Mr Netanyahu for talks "without preconditions" for the same reason.

Mark Perry, an independent Washington-based political analyst, said Mr Obama's administration had "recoiled" the minute the going got tough.

The gusto with which Mr Obama had started tackling the Palestinian-Israeli issue dissipated almost as soon as the administration realised resolution was not "simply about drawing lines on a map", Mr Perry said.

"It means getting Israel to the table, and getting Israel to stop stealing Palestinian land with its settlements. But that, in America, is viewed as political suicide," he said.