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The Middle East Quartet still includes the US, so can it still play a role in the peace process?

President Donald Trump address to Congress in Washington, US on 30 January 2018 [Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency]

Since US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent decision to cut American funding to UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has announced formally and repeatedly that Washington cannot continue in its traditional role as the sole sponsor of the peace process. Speaking shortly after Trump’s announcement in December, Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestinians have been engaged with the President’s advisors to achieve the “deal of the century” but “instead we got the slap of our times”. He concluded that, “The United States has chosen to lose its qualification as a mediator… We will no longer accept that it has a role in the political process.”

At that point, the PA President suggested that the UN should take over as mediator. However, since then, the PA has been searching for an alternative to the US sponsorship which has been based on bringing together a wider group of influential countries to oversee negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Israel has been silent on the matter, enjoying the complete US bias in its favour, whether from Trump’s advisors Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner, the US Ambassador to Israel David Freidman or the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Hayley.

During his recent visit to Israel, US Vice President Mike Pence received a hero’s welcome as he committed to moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by the end of 2019. The Palestinians refused to meet him. Trump saw this as an act of disrespect to Pence and the US, and threatened the PA with further cuts in American aid unless they returned to the negotiating table.

Read: Who is Mike Pence, and what does he want?

The next port of call for the Palestinians for a sponsor of the peace talks was the European Union. Abbas visited the EU headquarters in Brussels recently an

Palestinian men carry food aid given by UNRWA in Gaza City, Gaza on 15 January 2018 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]

Palestinian men carry food aid given by UNRWA in Gaza City, Gaza on 15 January 2018 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]

d held talks with Federica Mogherini, the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. If Abbas thought that the EU was ready to take a sole or significant role in the peace process, he was disappointed. Mogherini reiterated longstanding EU positions: “I want to, first of all, reassure President Abbas and his delegation of the firm commitment of the European Union to the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states… based on the Oslo Accords and the international consensus embodied in the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”

Mogherini also reaffirmed the EU’s opposition to the “settlement activity that we consider illegal under international law.” She reminded Abbas that the EU has “already invested a great deal in the Palestinian state-building project” and vowed that EU financial support would continue, “Including to UNRWA.” She did not respond to Abbas’s call for the EU as a bloc to recognise the State of Palestine.

In a press conference a few days later, before an extraordinary meeting of the International Donor Group for Palestine at the EU headquarters, Mogherini told reporters that any framework for negotiations must involve “all partners”, sending a strong message that the US could not be excluded: “Nothing without the United States, nothing with the United States alone.”

This must have come as a blow to the Palestinian leadership, which had hoped that the Americans could be sidelined from the peace process.

There are few alternatives for the Palestinians to pursue. France’s attempts to secure a greater role in the peace process resulted in the Paris Conference which took place in much more favourable conditions at the end of the Obama Administration, but it turned into a damp squib. The conference went ahead but little came out of it, and it has had no follow-up to speak of.

The Chinese, put forward their 4-point peace proposal last August:

  • Advancing the two-state solution based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state.
  • Upholding “the concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security,” immediately ending Israeli settlement building, taking immediate measures to prevent violence against civilians, and calling for an early resumption of peace talks.
  • Coordinating international efforts to put forward “peace-promoting measures that entail joint participation at an early date.”
  • Promoting peace through development and cooperation between the Palestinians and Israel.

While little has been heard of the proposal’s potential since last year, the Chinese stepped up their efforts to play a greater role in the peace process following Trump’s Jerusalem announcement. However, responding to a question about China’s possible future role at a regular press briefing on 21 December, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “China’s position on the Palestine issue is consistent. We support and actively promote the Middle East peace process. We support the just cause of the Palestinian people to regain their legitimate national rights… We are willing to continue offering constructive assistance to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”

The Chinese hosted a symposium last December bringing together Palestinians and Israelis in a bid to break the impasse. The session culminated with the production of a non-binding position paper known as the “Beijing Initiative”, which Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Zionist Union MK Hilk Bar said in a closing statement was intended to prove that “it is possible and necessary to break the political deadlock and encourage the two leaderships to return to the negotiating table.” A leading member of the Palestinian delegation added: “We have to search for another approach to the peace process… It must include the superpowers and China, maybe one of these parties who can play a major role.”

Read: The Israeli-led siege is devastating Gaza’s health sector

Attempts by Russia, another UN Security Council member to take a leading role in the peace process, go back many years but have not succeeded.

Palestinians have recently favoured an arrangement that mirrors the P5+1 which developed the Iran Nuclear Deal Agreement, which was concluded in 2015. The P5+1 refers to the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. A similar arrangement could still see the US involved but not monopolising the framework for negotiations.

A possible starting point here could be the Quartet, known formally as the Middle East Quartet, which consists of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN. It describes its mandate as “to help mediate Middle East peace negotiations and to support Palestinian economic development and institution-building in preparation for eventual statehood.”

On the face of it, the Quartet, with an upgrade of its senior team, could be the readymade answer to the Palestinian demand for a downgrading of the US role rather than Washington being excluded altogether. That may go some way towards meeting Israel’s insistence that the US has to be an important player in any future set of negotiations.

Read: ‘Construction terror’ is Israel’s latest metaphor for Palestinian displacement

The Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at Brookings evaluated the Quartet’s performance in 2012 in its paper “The Middle East Quartet: A post-Mortem“. It concluded that, but for some early successes up to 2003, the Quartet has not provided any tangible benefits, except “ensuring American engagement in the peace process.”

The Palestinians could request that certain countries are added to the group to provide their role with some prominence. These could include Japan, Egypt and China, and perhaps Britain as it leaves the EU. In other words a Q4+ format could be developed, possibly under UN leadership.

The advantage of the above arrangement, which will be challenging to bring together, is that the basic structure already exists. It is likely that the Palestinians would agree to such a grouping, leaving the US and Israel almost certainly rejecting it. However, this would show Palestinian flexibility and confirm US and Israel rejectionism.

There is a need for an alternative framework for negotiations to resolve the conflict other than the 25 years of futile talks led by the Americans whose bias towards Israel is guaranteed and blatant. The longer the void left by the Palestinian rejection of a role for the US exists, the longer that the status quo will continue, allowing Israel to march ahead with its colonial project. A revamped Quartet plus-plus is well worth serious consideration.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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