Delicious. Shame about the MidEast

Quartet meeting fails as conflict escalates


The members of the Middle East Quartet met on Monday for meetings on renewing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and a long dinner in Washington.

Despite the urgency of finding a way to restart negotiations before the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September, the Quartet failed to reach an agreed framework and did not release a joint statement following their discussions.

Between the participants - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, European Union Foreign Affairs representative Catherine Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Quartet envoy, Tony Blair - there was a consensus over the urgent need for a return to Israeli-Palestinian talks as soon as possible.

There was also agreement that the initiative to seek unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the General Assembly in two months could cause serious problems; that talks, when they resume, should be based on a 1967-borders formula; and that Israel should be reassured that its identity as a Jewish state would be recognised.

Their failure, however, to bridge Israeli and Palestinian disagreements on the key issues prevented the joint statement.

The real players are in Ramallah and Jerusalem

Meanwhile, there are the first signs of an escalation on the ground. Hamas has been allowing more Kassam attacks from Gaza, to which Israel responded this week with strikes on weapons manufacturing sites. Clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinians are also on the rise.

Despite the Quartet members' many decades of experience of negotiations and diplomacy, they are all bit-players in this process, mere conduits for the real players, who are based in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas are sitting in offices barely 30 minutes' drive away from each other, but instead of meeting up, or even picking up the phone, they are shadow-wrestling to the brink through proxies in far-away countries.

So far, despite all their efforts neither the Quartet's senior partner, the US, nor a supporting cast of presidents, prime and foreign ministers has managed to budge the two sides.

Israeli and Palestinian officials were both ready with their respective spins the moment the meeting in Washington broke up. In Jerusalem, reporters were briefed that it had been Palestinian obstructions that had prevented the joint statement. Their objection to recognition of a Jewish state and insistence on going to the UN in September would have caused the breach with the international community that the Quartet feared.

In Ramallah, Palestinian Authority spokesmen blamed Israel for its intransigence on the 1967 borders that lead to the impasse in Washington.

As ever, the roots of the enduring crisis are in local politics. Mr Netanyahu has signalled that he is prepared to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 borders if the settlement blocs near the Green Line are allowed to remain as part of territory exchanges.

He even said this in his speech two months ago to Congress in Washington. But his right-wing coalition is bogging him down and he needs some kind of Palestinian concession on the Jewish state - a concession that he will not get in the foreseeable future - in order to launch a serious diplomatic initiative.

Mr Abbas is not enamoured with the UN option; he prefers negotiations. However, if he were to back down now without at least a firm Israeli commitment to 1967 borders and an end to settlement activity for the duration of the talks, he would be crucified by Hamas and Palestinian public opinion.

For now the IDF and PA security forces are keeping a lid on the simmering pot, but come September it will be much harder to stop it from boiling over.

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