BICOM Analysis: Can the Quartet in July avert September?

Key Points

  • The Quartet will meet in Washington on 11 July, with Britain, France and Germany (the E3) pressing the US to back a Quartet formula for a return to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
  • The US and EU would both prefer the Palestinians not to pursue plans for a divisive UN vote on Palestinian statehood in September, but whilst the US is firmly against the UN route, the E3 powers are divided about how to respond if the issue does reach the UN.
  • The Palestinian move to the UN entails considerable dangers and limitations, a fact acknowledged by some Palestinian leaders, who fear it will do more harm than good.
  • Israel argues that the Palestinian strategy will not improve the situation on the ground, may create a flashpoint for renewed violence and will undermine future negotiations.
  • Whilst the US remains the key external player, the desire of all sides to win the Europeans’ support affords the major EU powers an unusual degree of influence. Their challenge is to promote a formula that will serve as an acceptable basis for both sides to return to talks and avoid a development at the UN that makes a negotiated solution harder to achieve in the future.

What is happening in July?

On 11 July, the Quartet is scheduled to meet in Washington. The EU has been pressing the US for several months to back Quartet terms of reference as a basis for Israel and the Palestinian Authority led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to renew negotiations. France would like to re-launch negotiations around a donor conference in Paris, though the US has so far been cool on this idea. Until now, the US has resisted international statements setting out terms for a peace agreement. However, it may be willing to do so now, based on US President Barack Obama’s 19 May speech on the Middle East.

In that speech, Obama said that a peace agreement should be based on ‘Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people.’ He then specified that borders should be based on the 1967 lines with agreed swaps, but that Israel’s withdrawal would be phased, and linked to arrangements that meet Israel’s security needs. The EU have set out their own terms of reference for the core issues of borders, Jerusalem and refugees, but official sources indicate that if the Quartet endorses terms of reference, it is likely to be based on Obama’s position.

Both the US and EU are keen to avoid the Palestinians unilaterally seeking support for Palestinian statehood at the UN in September. President Obama has taken a firm public position against attempts to resolve the issue though UN declarations, preferring a negotiated agreement between the parties themselves. The US particularly wants to avoid being isolated in a UN vote on Palestinian statehood. The E3, however, do not have a unified position. Germany has been critical of Palestinian unilateral moves in the UN, while France has been more supportive. British officials have said it would depend on the content of the resolution as to whether it would support it. All of the major powers would prefer to avoid this dilemma.

The US agreeing to Quartet terms of reference on borders and security, possibly then endorsed by a UN resolution, could come in return for European cooperation in stopping or containing the Palestinian attempt to secure recognition or membership at the UN.

What are the prospects of a return to talks?

US officials have been shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in recent weeks in an attempt to find an agreed basis for a return to bilateral negotiations. The best scenario would be to secure terms of reference agreed by both sides before the Quartet issues a statement next week. However, a number of considerable hurdles make this unlikely.

The Palestinians remain wedded to various preconditions. Palestinian negotiators have insisted for the past two years that Israel implement a complete freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Whilst Israel implemented a moratorium on new building in the West Bank for ten months until October 2010, and has shown relative restraint on building since then, a complete freeze is politically and practically undeliverable. The Palestinians also insist on 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations on borders. Whilst the US has endorsed this position, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far been unwilling to accept it. Israel would also like the international backing for the Palestinian position on 1967 borders to be balanced with a statement backing Israel’s position that Palestinian refugees should have the right of return to a Palestinian state and not to Israel.

A separate problem has been created with the Palestinian unity government. Until the announcement of the Palestinian unity deal, Netanyahu was willing to enter talks without preconditions. Now, however, he has insisted that he will not enter talks with a government that includes Hamas, a party which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

A possible set of compromises is conceivable, but cannot be considered likely at present. This would involve the Palestinians softening their demands on settlements and Israel acquiescing in some form – perhaps only in private – to 1967 borders as a basis for talks. It would also require President Abbas to abandon or stall the struggling effort to agree on a new Palestinian unity government with Hamas, leaving the current government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in charge.

An important underlying problem is that neither side believes that the other is prepared to make the difficult compromises necessary for a deal. As a result, both are reluctant to risk support with their domestic constituencies by making significant compromises even before talks begin.

Israel has been further disincentivised from launching a major diplomatic initiative due to the current degree of political uncertainty created by the Arab Spring. The Palestinians are disincentivised by the apparent availability of an alternative diplomatic strategy at the UN General Assembly, where they have an overwhelming numerical advantage over Israel. Abbas may also be motivated to secure his personal legacy with a diplomatic success at the UN, before bowing out ahead of planned Palestinian elections next year.

If, as seems likely, the US cannot find a basis for renewed talks before July, a Quartet statement setting out some terms of reference may be a way of increasing pressure on the two sides.

Is there an alternative to talks for the Palestinians?

The Palestinians have declared their intention to apply for membership of the UN. This application requires Security Council backing, which it is unlikely to receive due to a US veto. As former BICOM senior visiting fellow Tal Becker has described in a recent paper, beyond that stage there are many possibilities for how the initiative could develop.

One is that the Security Council agrees a resolution that addresses the conflict, perhaps by endorsing conclusions of the World Bank and IMF that the Palestinians are ready for statehood, and setting out the conditions under which it will endorse Palestinian membership of the UN. These could include a negotiated agreement with Israel, and some terms of reference. So far the US has opposed dealing with the issue at the Security Council, but this could be a compromise to take the application for membership off the table.

An alternative is that the Palestinians pursue a resolution at the General Assembly, possibly invoking the ‘Uniting for Peace’ procedure that has the power – with a two-thirds majority – to make non-binding recommendations. The General Assembly cannot, under UN procedures or international law, admit Palestine as a member. But it could potentially enhance Palestine’s status as an observer within the UN system, and confer some of the rights of statehood on the Palestinians in international legal forums.

The Palestinians can usually count on a majority in the UN General Assembly General Assemblythanks to the automatic support of the Islamic states and Non-Aligned Movement. However, to lend the resolution added legitimacy they are keen to secure the support of European states, which would lead to the embarrassing diplomatic isolation of the US and Israel.


What are the dangers of the Palestinian appeal to the UN?

There are considerable dangers behind the Palestinian bid for UN recognition, as some Palestinian leaders acknowledge. They fear that Palestinian relations with the US will be damaged. They are also aware that whatever diplomatic and legal benefits accrue to the Palestinians from a UN resolution, they will not improve the situation on the ground through this approach. A recent survey shows a large majority of Palestinians believe if the UN recognises Palestinian statehood on 1967 lines, the PA should then assert its sovereignty by opening roads or deploying security forces in areas of the West Bank currently under Israeli control. However, if the PA attempts to fulfill this expectation after September, it is likely to lead to dangerous confrontations with the IDF and Israeli settlers. Raising expectations on the Palestinian street of the establishment of a Palestinian state that will not be fulfilled, risks creating a catalyst for demonstrations and violence.

The Palestinian Authority has succeeded in maintaining order in the areas of the West Bank under its control in recent years. This has enhanced its claim to be ready for statehood, and has allowed Israel to considerably reduce restrictions on movement and access in the West Bank, which has in turn benefited the Palestinian economy. A new wave of popular violence in the West Bank could reverse these advances.

Israel, backed by the US, also argues that a Palestinian success in having their positions endorsed by the UN will undermine the prospects for future negotiations. Palestinians will have less motivation to enter talks. They will have a wide range of alternative options to continue promoting the diplomatic and political isolation of Israel, including international legal forums.

Abbas wrote in the New York Times in May that ‘Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalisation of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.’ These options will be more attractive to the Palestinians than the politically difficult route of seeking a negotiated agreement. However, none of these legal or diplomatic measures will have the power to create a Palestinian state in reality, which requires Israeli cooperation.

On the other hand, if the PA fails to secure any achievement through their UN strategy, having raised expectations, it could severely damage their domestic political position, to the benefit of Hamas. Even senior Israeli officials have acknowledged this concern.

Why do Britain and Europe have a pivotal role?

The US remains the key external player in determining how the situation develops. However, the current situation is unusual in that it affords European powers, particularly the E3, an important role. With the US clearly opposed to the UN route, it is the Europeans who both Israel and the Palestinians are trying to win over. The US also wants to maintain common ground with the E3 and avoid diplomatic isolation.

The best option remains finding an agreed basis on which to return to direct talks between the two sides. But even if a swift return to talks is unlikely right now, it is important that all diplomatic initiatives preserve the principle that a Palestinian state can only be created through negotiated agreement with Israel. International attempts to force a solution on Israel, through diplomatic or legal means, which do not address Israel’s legitimate core concerns, are likely to force Israel and the Palestinians into more entrenched positions.

Britain and its EU colleagues should be focused on both finding an acceptable basis for Israel and the Palestinians to build a future agreement, and avoiding developments in international forums that will make a negotiated solution harder to reach.

Further Reading

Click here for more analysis and briefings on the Israeli-Palestinian arena.

Read the BICOM Research Paper: What Can Britain Do? Principles and Proposals for a British Contribution to Israeli-Palestinian Peace