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The Quartet report’s missed opportunity

Friday’s Quartet report may have been long awaited but it was ultimately short in surprises and muddled in recommendations. As the report itself states, it doesn’t seek to provide suggestions on final status issues but instead focuses on major threats to achieving a negotiated peace and offers recommendations to advance the two-state solution.

In this context it details three main trends identified as endangering the two-state framework:

  • Continuing Palestinian terrorist attacks against civilians, and incitement to violence, which “greatly exacerbate mistrust and are fundamentally incompatible with a peaceful resolution”
  • Continuing Israeli settlement construction and expansion, designation of land for exclusive Israeli use, and denial of Palestinian development which are “steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution”
  • Fatah-Hamas division and dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, which “feed instability and ultimately impede efforts to achieve a negotiated solution.”

These trends do indeed constitute components in the increasingly stagnating peace process. And it’s positive that the Palestinians aren’t given a ‘free pass’ and continued violence and incitement – from both Fatah and Hamas – is addressed by the report. By means of an example of the toxicity of this issue, last Monday, Sultan Abu al-Einein a Fatah aide to President Abbas said: “Wherever you see an Israeli, slit his throat”. Three days later, a young Palestinian broke into the bedroom of a 13-year-old Israeli girl called Hallel Yaffe Ariel and stabbed her multiple times. Words have consequences and such statements and the actions they inspire remain a major impediment to future peaceful ties between the sides, doing little to convince even left-leaning Israelis that trading ‘land’ will ultimately bring them ‘peace’. Meanwhile, it strengthens those Israeli voices arguing that the Palestinians do not constitute a partner for the political process.

While in no way comparable to terrorism, a continually expanding settlement project has historically increased Palestinian mistrust of the peace process and makes a two-state reality harder to implement. Israel should be encouraged to do more in Area C to facilitate Palestinian economic and territorial development. However, it’s worth emphasising that the Netanyahu government did oversee a 10-month settlement freeze in 2009-10 (in which for the first 9 months the Palestinians refused to restart negotiations). Furthermore, 80 per cent of Israelis located over the Green Line live in Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem or in the main settlement blocs that previous negotiation rounds have suggested may become part of sovereign Israel.

A third factor in the Quartet report – the lack of Palestinian unity – is undoubtedly a major component weakening the two-state paradigm. As the report says, “The [PA-Hamas] division also damages Gaza’s economic development, hinders basic service delivery, and impedes the reconstruction process”. Yet while this is true, it is difficult to understand how this division can be fixed while Hamas continues to refuse to accept the Quartet’s own principles of recognising Israel and forswearing violence. The report may want to “encourage efforts to address dire humanitarian, reconstruction, and recovery needs of the people in Gaza” yet it is unfortunately silent on the way to achieve this as long as Hamas maintains its ideological direction and the PA and Hamas fail to resolve the issue of who should be present at the Gaza border crossings.

Absence of carrots and sticks: This issue regarding Hamas relates to what to my mind is one weakness in the report, namely the lack of any incentives for good behaviour or disincentives for bad. The report stresses the urgent need for affirmative steps to reverse these negative trends, but it seems powerless to influence the sides.

Lack of strategic focus: Furthermore, the Quartet report seems muddled in suggesting ways to change course. It praises the French Initiative (top-down bilateral negotiations with a fixed timetable), Egyptian mediation and the Arab Peace Initiative (regional multi-lateral peacemaking), civil society projects and Palestinian state-building (bottom-up steps) and “unilateral actions which strengthen the two state solution on the ground”. But which approach should take precedence? What is the Quartet’s preferred strategic direction and priority?

While accurately identifying some of the obstacles to two states, the report suffers from a lack of strategic clarity. Does the Quartet still believe in its own 2003 Roadmap to Peace which envisages a Palestinian State in Provisional Borders before Final Status? Should constructive unilateralism be curbed or encouraged? Does the report prefer bilateral or multilateral talks? Top-down or bottom-up actions?

And how can the international community hope to advance the process between Israelis and the Palestinians without emphasising both carrots and sticks?

What is the Quartet’s relevance? The report was apparently heavily redacted before publication so it is difficult to know which (potentially stronger) suggestions may have been taken out. But if this report reflects the international community’s thinking about resolving the conflict it raises questions as to the continued relevancy of the Quartet and seems to imply that international stakeholders are in a holding pattern, perhaps waiting for Obama to ride in on a white horse and suggest final status parameters before the end of his term in office.

What the Quartet should have emphasised – incentives for gradualism: The international community does have a significant role to play in facilitating a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But the Quartet report breaks no new ground. Instead it would have been productive to explore and expand on current discussions regarding how third parties can gradually move the process forward through specific international incentives. These types of discussions – already taking place in both the Arab world and EU – reflect a growing realisation that a final status agreement is currently off the table. While both the EU and Arab Peace Initiative have offered a ‘goody bag’ for after an agreement is signed, there should be greater creative thinking on building a ‘ladder of incentives’ for how each side would be rewarded for making concrete steps towards a two-state reality. It is here that the Quartet could have offered something new and significant had it not preferred to leave an underwhelming series of recommendations to resolve an increasingly fraught conflict.

Calev Ben Dor is BICOM’s Director of Research