A crucial element of the Quartet plan from Israel’s point of view was its explicit call for an immediate resumption of peace talks without delay or pre-conditions. The new plan refers to the 2003 Quartet “Roadmap” peace plan, which Israel never fully accepted. Israel is also nervous about allowing the EU, Russia and the UN to play a formal role in the peace talks. Nevertheless, Israel announced its agreement to the terms of the Quartet proposal Sunday.
ISRAEL SAYS YES AND THE PALESTINIANS SAY NO
“Israel welcomes the Quartet’s call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions, as called for by both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu,” said a statement issued by the prime minister’s office.
“While Israel has some concerns, it will raise them at the appropriate time,” the statement added. “Israel calls on the Palestinian Authority to do the same and enter into direct negotiations without delay.”
The Obama administration applauded Israel’s acceptance of the Quartet proposal, and urged the Palestinians to do likewise.
“The United States once again calls on both parties to resume negotiations without preconditions, on the timetable proposed by the Quartet,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. For both sides, she said, the Quartet plan remains “the best means to advance their interests, resolve their differences, and fulfill the president’s [Obama] two-state vision.”
After some initial hesitation, the Palestinians reacted negatively to the Quartet proposal. They insisted that their pre-conditions for a total Israeli construction freeze and acceptance of the pre-67 borders must be met before they would agree to return to the peace table.
ABBAS STYMIED AT THE UN
Abbas was still hoping to force a showdown vote in the Security Council over Palestinian membership. In light of the US determination to use its veto to block the resolution in the Security Council, such a vote is unlikely in the near future.
The issuance of the Quartet proposal to restart negotiations has given the US and some Europeans a credible argument to other members of the Security Council to await the outcome of that effort before considering the Palestinian application. As long as the Quartet proposal is still alive, some US diplomats believe that they could prevent the Palestinian resolution from obtaining the 9 positive votes in the 15-member body required by the UN Charter to pass, and avoid the need for the US to cast its veto. As a result, the Palestinian membership application has now been put on hold indefinitely, pending the outcome of the Quartet initiative.
QUARTET PLAN TRIES TO PAPER OVER KEY DIFFERENCES
The Quartet proposal was vaguely worded in a deliberate attempt to give both sides political cover to soften their previously stated positions. It was specifically designed to allow Abbas to resume the peace talks without at the same time requiring Israel to freeze new Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Yerushalayim, or to accept the pre-1967 border as the starting point for territorial negotiations.
While the media has tried to portray both sides as stubbornly refusing to back down, in fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his speech to the General Assembly last month, reiterated his call for an immediate resumption of peace talks with no preconditions. This was the same offer that he has made repeatedly since first announcing his position on making peace with the Palestinians in a speech at Bar Ilan University in May, 2009.
In his speech at the UN, Netanyahu expressed support for Palestinian statehood in principle. But he emphasized that the so-called “two state solution” can only lead to peace in the context of a negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on mutually agreed boundaries, Arab acceptance of the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, necessary accommodations for Israel’s security needs, and a declaration of a formal end to the hostilities through explicit Arab recognition of Israel’s right to live in peace side-by-side with the Palestinians.
ISRAEL RE-ASSERTS ITS CLAIM TO YERUSHALAYIM
Several days before announcing its acceptance of the Quartet proposal, Israel made it clear that it still was not accepting any preconditions by making what would otherwise be considered a routine announcement of a major new housing project which would create 1100 apartments in the Gilo neighborhood of southern Yerushalayim. Gilo is within Israel’s municipal boundaries, and is already home to 40,000 Jews. The project would extend an existing neighborhood on the outskirts of Gilo, by putting 35 new buildings down the side of a currently vacant hill.
In an interview following the announcement, Netanyahu insisted that the Gilo project was nothing out of the ordinary. “We plan in Yerushalayim. We build in Yerushalayim, period; the same way Israeli governments have been doing for 44 years, since the end of the 1967 war. We build in Jewish neighborhoods, the Arabs build in Arab neighborhoods, that is the way the life of this city goes on and develops for its Jewish and non- Jewish residents alike,” he said.
Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, later expanded on the government’s position. He told reporters that, “Gilo is not a settlement and it is definitely not an outpost. It is a Yerushalayim neighborhood that is 10 minutes from the center of the city. Every peace plan put forward for the past 18 years, including the Clinton parameters of 2000 and the Geneva Initiative, has stated that Gilo will remain part of Israel in a final-status agreement.”
WE GAVE AT THE OFFICE!
When asked about the possibility of instituting another West Bank construction freeze, Netanyahu recalled that the voluntary 10-month moratorium which he imposed in late 2009 failed to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table until the last moment, and then only under intense US pressure. When the original moratorium period expired, as the new round of US-sponsored talks had just begun, the Palestinians demanded an extension of the freeze, and when Israel refused, Abbas again broke off negotiations.
Citing that experience, Netanyahu ruled out another settlement freeze, and concluded that, “the Palestinians, by coming back to the issue of the settlement freeze, indicate that they don’t really want to negotiate. It’s just a pretext.”
When asked once again about reinstating the moratorium, Netanyahu replied dismissively, “We already gave at the office!”
He also insisted that he has no intention of intervening to halt the building plans in Gilo.
ISRAEL CLAIMS THAT ABBAS IS NOT WILLING TO NEGOTIATE PEACE
Israeli officials argue that the Palestinian refusal to engage in negotiations when the previous freeze was in place shows a fundamental lack of commitment on their part to the negotiating process. By seeking UN recognition, Abbas has made a strategic decision to abandon negotiations, and impose his own ideas for the borders of the new Palestinian state without having to take Israel’s legitimate territorial claims and security requirements into consideration.
The Netanyahu government claims that it is “showing more restraint than any previous Israeli government” regarding building in the West Bank, after having finally reached an understanding with the White House over that ill-conceived early Obama demand last year. It insists that no Israeli government has ever formally agreed to freeze construction in any part of Yerushalayim.
YERUSHALAYIM AGAIN AT THE CENTER OF DISPUTE
There was a de facto slow down in new housing approvals after an incident in March, 2010 when Vice President Joe Biden was said to be embarrassed by a routine municipal planning committee approval of a 1,600 unit housing project in Ramat Shlomo, a part of the city that is beyond the 1967 Green Line. At the time, Housing Minister Eli Yishai apologized for the timing of the announcement, but not for its content. Yishai noted that Israel has never agreed to impose a construction freeze on any part of Yerushalayim
After that incident, there were complaints that the government had imposed a de facto freeze on bureaucratic approval for new housing projects in Yerushalayim. This was a politically sensitive subject due to the severe shortage of affordable housing in the city. However, after the expiration of Netanyahu’s voluntary moratorium last year, most of the restrictions he imposed on new construction in both the West Bank and Yerushalayim were relaxed.
After the incident involving Biden, Netanyahu ordered that any government announcements of new housing projects in Yerushalayim be cleared in advance through his office. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Netanyahu had specifically approved the timing of the announcement of the Gilo project, and was using it to send a message to the US and the Quartet that he would not be pressured into accepting Abbas’ preconditions.
However, for the record, a spokesman for Eli Yishai said that last week’s decision on the Gilo project was purely technical and routine in nature, and not intended to send a diplomatic signal. In addition, Israeli officials noted that the actual start of construction on the project is still years away.
EXPECTED CRITICISM FROM THE US AND THE WORLD
True to form, the Obama administration, as well as Germany, the United Nations and the European Union issued formal objections to the Gilo project.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Israeli announcement “counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties. As you know, we have long urged both sides to avoid any kind of action which could undermine trust, including, and perhaps most particularly, in Jerusalem, any action that could be viewed as provocative by either side,” Clinton said at a news conference.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration was “deeply disappointed” by Israel’s announcement. He added, “We have maintained all along that each side in the dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis should take steps that bring them closer to direct negotiations to resolve the issues that stand in the way of Palestinian statehood and a secure Jewish state of Israel. When either side takes unilateral action, it makes it harder to achieve that. We make our views known, just as we did, obviously, with regard to the Palestinian action at the United Nations.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned while visiting Israel Sunday, that it was becoming increasingly isolated in the Middle East, and called upon Israeli leaders to restart negotiations with the Palestinians and restore good relations with Egypt and Turkey.
Panetta asked that even though Israel maintains its military superiority in the region, “Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you’re isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena? Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength,” he replied to his own question.
“It’s pretty clear that at this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated,” he added. “And that’s what’s happening.”
COMPLAINTS FROM EUROPE
A spokesman for German chancellor, Angela Merkel told reporters that in a telephone conversation with Netanyahu last week, she said that the approval of the Gilo project “raised doubts that the Israeli government is interested in starting serious negotiations.”
The EU’s foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the Israeli decision about the project in Gilo “should be reversed.”
A spokesman for the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, also criticized the move, saying, “This sends the wrong signal at this sensitive time. Settlement activity is contrary to the roadmap and to international law and undermines the prospect of resuming negotiations and reaching a two-state solution to the conflict.”
Israel vigorously denies that its West Bank settlements are illegal, since sovereignty over that land has never been determined by international treaty. Israel also insists that the term “settlements” does not apply within the municipal boundaries of Yerushalayim, which is its capital and its sovereign territory.
The Israeli government was expecting such criticism, and has held firm. In response, Israeli diplomats simply point to the Quartet statement rejecting all demands for preconditions to restarting the peace talks.
The Quartet proposal, by design, has been interpreted differently by Israel and the Palestinians, with each side finding language in the statement that echoes its views.
WHAT THE ROADMAP REQUIRES OF THE PA
Israel chooses to emphasize the plan’s call for negotiations “without delay or preconditions.” The Palestinians prefer to emphasize the plan’s reference to the 2003 Roadmap, which did call for an Israeli settlement construction freeze. Historically, Israel never accepted that condition of the Roadmap.
The original Roadmap called for a 3-phase process leading to an internationally endorsed negotiated agreement, by 2005, which would formally end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establish an independent Palestinian state. The timetable ultimately proved to be impossibly optimistic, and attempts at implementation were suspended before phase I could be completed. The Roadmap is one of many variations of the original 1993 Oslo peace plan proposed over the past 18 years, none of which fully met their stated goals.
Today, the Palestinians conveniently ignore the many conditions which the Roadmap placed upon them, including an end to incitement against Israel, fighting terrorist groups and various democratic reforms. All of these are condition which the Palestinians still have not met.
Instead of dismantling and disarming the terrorists, the Palestinian Authority established a cease fire with the other terrorist groups, and twice has entered into a power-sharing government alliance with Hamas.
Abbas was elected PA chairman in January, 2005, and is now ruling far beyond the end of his authorized term of office. The Palestinian Legislative Council had its most recent elections in January, 2006, which was won by Hamas. Abbas has been ruling the PA by presidential decree since 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza by force. Hamas, of course, does not hold free elections in Gaza. So much for Palestinian democracy under the terms of the Roadmap.
The Roadmap also explicitly calls for the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.
Nevertheless, all the international pressure for compliance with the Roadmap agreement has been directed at Israel. The Palestinians feel free to ignore their obligations under the Roadmap, while insisting that Israel stop all construction in the settlements, which the Roadmap does call for, and recognize the pre-1967 Green Line as the starting point for the borders of the new Palestinian state, which the Roadmap never mentions.
PA STILL DEMANDING PRE-CONDITIONS
Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, and Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, both issued statements over the weekend saying that the PA leadership had decided not to return to peace talks unless Israel met its preconditions.
The language of the Quartet statement was intentionally nonspecific, employing code words and phrases meant to make it acceptable to both sides. Israel is content to live with these ambiguities, if they allow the two sides to get back to the negotiating table, but the Palestinians are demanding specific clarifications in its language that would turn the Quartet proposal into another lopsided demand for one-sided Israeli concessions.
Shaath says that trying to pin down the meaning of the Quartet’s terms for talks would “take the next 20 years. This is the folly that we called the peace process.”
He demanded that, “the Quartet must say right here and now what it understands the terms of reference to be, and having done that, we want Mr. Netanyahu to say, yes, he accepts. Mr. Netanyahu calls the rules preconditions, but without the rules you cannot negotiate anything.”
Shaath also blasted the announcement of the construction project in Gilo, saying that it effectively “ended the Quartet statement there and then.”
Abbas claims that because the Palestinians lack statehood, they are automatically at a disadvantage in any talks with Israel, and therefore have the right to insist on their own pre-conditions. The US and Israel respond that the Palestinians are still bound by the original terms of the Oslo accords which specify that only direct negotiations can settle borders, security and other disputes, and that only a mutual agreement can lead to recognition of an independent Palestinian state.
VERY LITTLE HAS CHANGED
The bottom line is that Israel and the Palestinians are still as far apart on the final status issues as ever. However, the exercise at the UN did wind up solidifying US support for Israel. Among other things, it forced President Obama to make the most important and clearly pro-Israel speech of his presidency, which he hopes to cash-in on with Jewish donors and voters in his re-election campaign.
The Palestinian membership bid also prompted a serious new international effort to resolve the dispute through negotiations, without further isolating or damaging Israel’s diplomatic status, which had been greatly feared.
“In many ways, more good has come out of it than bad,” said Shibley Telhami, a former adviser to the U.S. mission to the UN who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “It has created a diplomatic crisis that once again put this issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace at the top of the international agenda where it belongs.”
But in the end, neither the drama at the UN nor the Quartet’s plan did anything to resolve the underlying disputes that divide the two sides or lay out principles for solving them.
Aaron David Miller, a Clinton-era US Middle East negotiator is now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington. He calls the Quartet’s response to Abbas’ bid for UN recognition no more than an effort to “kick the can down the road and defer consideration of Abbas’ bid for UN membership. It can’t become a basis for sustainable negotiations, because it doesn’t address the problems impeding those negotiations.”
In short, nothing has yet been done to break the gridlock created by decades of failed peace talks.
ISRAEL DODGES A BULLET AT THE UN
Nevertheless, there was a palpable sense of relief in Israel over the fact that the September confrontation at the UN was not the catastrophe which had been widely predicted. Israel and Netanyahu had dodged a diplomatic bullet. Fears that the Palestinians would achieve something close to their goal of recognition, leaving Israel further isolated and under greater international and legal pressure than ever, were not realized.
Instead, Netanyahu returned home from New York last week relatively unscathed, having fought the Palestinians to a diplomatic draw, without having to give up any new Israeli concessions.
“It turns out that the tsunami predicted to hit Israel in the month of September went the way of so many other predictions that have been made about the Middle East in recent years,” wrote former Likud defense minister Moshe Arens in a column published in Haaretz.
Similarly, Obama’s speech in defense of Israel at the UN did a lot to improve his standing with Israelis who, over the past two years, had become convinced that he was siding with the Palestinians.
Israeli right wingers like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman were happy to endorse Obama’s latest UN speech “with both hands.” However, many pro-Israel American Jews who have had the opportunity to study the president more closely urge caution, and are openly skeptical that Obama’s pro-Israel rhetoric will continue past the Election Day 2012 if he is re-elected.
ABBAS WINS A TEMPORARY BOOST, BUT AT A PRICE
Abbas’ application for UN recognition of statehood was popular on the Palestinian street and temporarily boosted waning popular support for Abbas and his Fatah Party, while it put Hamas on the defensive.
Despite all the international attention it attracted, in the end, the membership application was tabled by the Security Council, and it prompted international efforts to revive the peace negotiations which Abbas was hoping to avoid.
There will be other costs to the Palestinians for the effort as well, including the delay of $200 million in promised US government aid, the real possibility that future US aid to the Palestinians will be curtailed in retaliation by pro-Israel members of Congress.
At a press conference opposite UN headquarters in New York while the General Assembly was in session last month, New York Congressman Gary Ackerman, who is the Ranking Democrat on the House Middle East affairs subcommittee, said: “If [the Palestinians] are willing to consider putting their future in the hands of the United Nations, perhaps they should think about how much aid their friends at the United Nations will provide to accompany whatever meaningless, one-sided UN resolution they might pass.”
Congress’ draft budget for fiscal year 2012 would condition further aid to the Palestinian Authority upon a certification by the Secretary of State that the PA is no longer seeking unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.
In August, Congresswoman Kay Granger, (R) who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, placed a hold on nearly $200 million in 2011 US aid to the PA “until the issue of statehood is resolved,” according to her spokesman, and she will not release it until the fate of the Palestinian application to the UN is resolved.
Opponents of suspending US aid funds for the PA warned that it might hurt security cooperation between the PA and Israel. However, sources in the committee say that the funds involved were earmarked for humanitarian assistance and infrastructure projects, and that their suspension will have no impact on PA security cooperation with Israel. Instead, the suspension is intended as a warning to the Palestinians that a price must be paid for its defiance of US policy.
OBAMA SEEKS TO RELEASE FROZEN PA FUNDS
On Monday, the State Department confirmed that the Obama administration is now engaged in “intensive” discussions with key members of Congress to release the frozen funds.
“The concern is that if we don’t get this going with the Congress in short order there could be an effect on the ground,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing. She added that the Obama administration views the US aid as crucial to preparing the Palestinian Authority to run a new Palestinian state. “We think it is money that is not only in the interest of the Palestinians, it is in US interest and it is also in Israeli interest and we would like to see it go forward.”
The Palestinian Authority was already in serious financial trouble. Last month, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank said that a shortage of money threatened the state-building program that PA Prime Minister Salman Fayyad has led for the past two years.
The PA has not been able to pay its 150,000 employees on time and it remains reliant on foreign aid to provide $900 million a year to balance its budget. In this context, a fall off in US funding could mean more money trouble for the PA.
US WILL KEEP TRYING
After all of the diplomatic maneuvering at the UN last month, very little of substance was accomplished. Israel and the Palestinians are no closer to agreement, and there is a real question as to whether there is enough mutual respect left between them to even attempt serious negotiations. Yet the international parties concerned about the prospects for peace in the Middle East see few options other than to keep trying.
Assistant US Secretary of State for Public Affairs Michael Hammer said, “we know that there’s a trust deficit that needs to be overcome,” but noted that the two sides “have an opportunity here that we hope they will seize. We all have a shared and common objective of having two states living side by side in peace and security. The question is, how can we get there: Are the leaders of each country willing to take the personal, political risks to achieve peace. We’re going to be very much working in the coming days to try to bring that about.”