On the Quartet Statement and Palestine UN Membership

After nearly back-to-back speeches at the United Nations by President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the “international community” in the form of the USA-Russia-UN-EU “quartet weighed in.  At about 330 this afternoon, the quartet emerged form a closed door meeting to issue this statement. Those who have been following the diplomatic drama of these past few days may recall that Nicholas Sarkozy laid out a very similar timeline for negotiations in his speech two days ago. Here’s the Quartet statement in full:

The Quartet takes note of the application submitted by President Abbas on 23rd September 2011 which is now before the Security Council.

The Quartet reaffirmed its statement of 20th May 2011, including its strong support for the vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace outlined by United States President Barack Obama.

The Quartet recalled its previous statements, and affirmed its determination to actively and vigorously seek a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, on the basis of UN Security Council Resolutions 242, 338, 1397, 1515, 1850, the Madrid principles including land for peace, the Roadmap, and the agreements previously reached between the parties.

The Quartet reiterated its commitment to a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East and to seek a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and reaffirms the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative.

The Quartet reiterated its urgent appeal to the parties to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct bilateral Israeli -Palestinian negotiations without delay or preconditions. But it accepts that meeting, in itself, will not re-establish the trust necessary for such a negotiation to succeed. It therefore proposes the following steps:

1. Within a month there will be a preparatory meeting between the parties to agree an agenda and method of proceeding in the negotiation.

2.     At that meeting there will be a commitment by both sides that the objective of any negotiation is to reach an agreement within a timeframe agreed to by the parties but not longer than the end of 2012. The Quartet expects the parties to come forward with comprehensive proposals within three months on territory and security, and to have made substantial progress within six months. To that end, the Quartet will convene an international conference in Moscow, in consultation with the parties, at the appropriate time.

3.     There will be a Donors Conference at which the international community will give full and sustained support to the Palestinian Authority state-building actions developed by Prime Minister Fayyad under the leadership of President Abbas.

4.     The Quartet recognizes the achievements of the Palestinian
Authority in preparing institutions for statehood as evidenced in
reports to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, and stresses the need to preserve and build on them.  In this regard, the members of the Quartet will consult to identify additional steps they can actively support towards Palestinian statehood individually and together, to secure in accordance with existing procedures significantly greater independence and sovereignty for the Palestinian Authority over its affairs.

5.     The Quartet calls upon the parties to refrain from provocative actions if negotiations are to be effective. The Quartet reiterated the obligations of both parties under the Roadmap.

6.      The Quartet committed to remain actively involved and to encourage and review progress.  The Quartet agreed to meet regularly and to task the envoys and the Quartet Representative to intensify their cooperation, including by meeting prior to the parties’ preparatory meeting, and to formulate recommendations for Quartet action.

So what to think about this? Daniel Levy:

  • – The Quartet called on the parties to present comprehensive proposals for territory and security in three months. This represents a more forward-leaning and conscious effort to pursue the logic initially outlined by President Obama on May 19 for making progress (borders and security first). It is perhaps the only really new element; however it appears that the Quartet are willing to sacrifice that somewhat novel approach to a breakthrough on peace on the altar of loyalty to direct negotiations. If the parties cannot overcome that trust gap (and the language of the Quartet statements suggests that some Quartet members at least doubt it) then why not have the parties submit their proposals on territory and security to the Quartet — that might be a more serious approach.
  • -Any explicit reference to settlements is conspicuous in its absence. One has to carry a peace-process dictionary to understand that the reference in point five to “provocative actions and Roadmap obligations” is in large measure a way of saying settlements. It is a reflection of how ineffectual the Quartet is likely to continue to be, that we have reached a stage where they cannot explicitly reference a settlement freeze. International legality be damned. For the Palestinians, the absence of settlement freeze language and the absence of clear terms of reference, as they had requested, will be a hard swallow (albeit the terms of reference they would have got would have constituted an even harder swallow).
  • – In an atmosphere in which Congress is threatening aid to the Palestinians in retaliation for their UN approach, and in which members of the Israeli cabinet are doing likewise with regard to the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues, it is noteworthy that the statement spends two paragraphs acknowledging the institution-building achievements of the PA and calling for a PA donors conference. On this, there is consensus: dramatically shaking up the status quo by taking the kinds of steps that would precipitate the PA’s collapse would then put the international community in an uncomfortable situation. It is also a reflection of the understanding that while the PA provides an element of self-government as well as employment and services to the Palestinians, it is ultimately a mechanism that is hugely convenient for Israel, in shouldering the direct burden of managing the occupation. It is easier for the US to defend something that is so clearly in Israel’s interest.
  • – The Quartet is potentially given a greater role in overseeing this effort, which may be an acknowledgement of America’s inability to lead given its domestic political realities, or maybe that just helped grease the wheels for the rest of the Quartet to go on this journey.
  • – The idea of holding a future peace conference in Moscow conference — long buried –makes a reappearance. This apparently helped seal Russian approval for issuing a Quartet statement as the Russians had been something of a holdout during the ongoing talks.
  • – Finally, there was no consensus position in relation to today’s Palestinian application for U.N. membership — and that is an issue that one imagines that the Quartet and much of the Security Council, not least the U.S., would be happy to avoid voting on any time soon.

The only thing I would add that one of the great values of this statement is the use of date-specific language. Next year’s General Assembly meeting will take place two months prior to what may be a very close election. Presumably, President Obama will want to do all he can to avoid being backed into the same diplomatic corner and will work toward achieving real progress over the next year.