By Ghassan Khatib
One of the motives behind the Palestinian appeal to the United Nations is to gradually escape the United States’ monopoly over mediation in the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis, seeking instead an even-handed mediation that is sensitive to the position of the international community, international law and the agreed-upon peace process terms of reference, like the roadmap.
One of the outcomes of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ request for UN membership in September has been the active role of the Quartet, which includes representatives of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations. This Mideast working group seems to be trying to fill the growing gap in mediation that has resulted from the failures of the US.
When discussions on the Palestinian bid at the UN reached a critical level due to strong American opposition to the Palestinian application at the Security Council, the Quartet stepped in and issued a political statement from New York on September 23, 2011. This statement called on both parties to the conflict to resume direct negotiations within a month, specifying a timetable for that purpose.
After a relatively long pause, both sides responded positively, while cautiously, and with two different readings of the Quartet statement. The Israelis saw in this initiative support for their call to resume bilateral talks without preconditions. The Palestinians, however, also backed the statement, specifically emphasizing its Article No. 5, which reads: “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.”
The Palestinians, while responding positively in general, emphasized the need that the Quartet ensure Israel’s cessation of settlement activities, which are both “provocative actions” and part of the “obligations of both parties under the Roadmap”.
The Israeli response to that was that if the Quartet had intended a settlement freeze, it would have spelled that out explicitly. Israel rejected that reading out of hand. On October 10, 2011, following a major Israeli decision to build 1,200 new housing units in Gilo settlement, the EU (an important member of the Quartet), issued a statement saying it “deplores the recent Israeli decision to advance settlement expansion in East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo, which runs contrary to Quartet efforts”. This was understood to support the Palestinian understanding of the Quartet statement. Soon after that EU statement, top UN and Russian officials also condemned the decision to expand Gilo, stating that this move defied the Quartet’s expectations.
These statements from three of the four members of the Quartet justified the Palestinian expectation that Israel must stop its expansion of illegal Israeli settlements as part of its positive response to the Quartet.
In fact, Israel’s immediate violations of this Quartet statement pose a serious challenge to the international community. They illustrate the need to move from verbal reactions to effective and practical steps that are able to convince Israel of the seriousness of the international community’s intervention in the conflict.
Otherwise, we will all fall once again into the Israeli trap of resuming negotiations for the sake of negotiations, which Israel uses to shield itself as it continues to consolidate its illegal occupation through settlement construction. Indeed, even the Quartet seemed to acknowledge this danger when it stated in the same document that, “meeting, in itself, will not re-establish the trust necessary for such a negotiation to succeed.”
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org