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Quartet gives up on peace talks

Jonathan-cook.net – 18 March 2011

There were growing indications last week that the international community has abandoned hopes of reviving Middle East peace talks, effectively leaving Israel and the Palestinians to battle out the next few months with their own unilateral strategies.

The daily Haaretz newspaper reported on Thursday that the Quartet, the international group overseeing the peace process, had reached its pessimistic conclusion after meetings with local officials in Tel Aviv and Ramallah earlier this month.

Unnamed European diplomats and senior Israeli officials were reported by the paper as saying that the Quartet – made up of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations – believed the two sides were too far apart.

A meeting due last week of the Quartet’s principals, including Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was cancelled at short notice and without explanation.

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, had earlier billed the meeting as one vital to creating “a sense of urgency” for Israel and the Palestinians to move forward with peace talks. It is still unclear whether a new meeting will take place next month.

Instead the international community’s attenton appears to be switching to the proclaimed intention of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to declare statehood at the United Nations in September.

Riad al-Maliki, the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister, said ealier this month that he expects 150 UN members to recognise a Palestinian state by late summer.

Last week Alain Juppe, France’s foreign minister, told French MPs it was “a possibility” the EU might support a Palestinian declaration of statehood. However, he added, France would not do so in isolation from the rest of Europe. “It must be done together.”

A European diplomat in Israel, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said France was “pushing hard” for recognition of Palestinian statehood in discussions among European states. The French position, he added, was gaining traction as hopes faded of kickstarting the peace process.

This month Britain and the Irish Republic followed the lead of France, Spain and Portugal in upgrading the status of the Palestinian delegations to their capitals. The move fell short of full diplomatic recognition but was reported to have worried Israeli officials.

Last week Uruguay joined more than a dozen Latin American countries in recognising a Palestinian state.

The peace talks stalled late last summer, when Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, refused to renew a partial freeze on settlement building, as the US had demanded. The Palestinians have made a continuation of the freeze a conditon for returning to the talks.

Netanyahu’s officials have suggested that he is preparing to announce his own unilateral initiative to the White House. His office has hinted that Israel will propose an interim deal on a demilitarised state in temporary borders, possibly on about 60 per cent of the West Bank and parts of East Jerusalem.

Both sides have rejected the other’s position.

Abbas has said he will consider only a final agreement on statehood, reportedly fearing that Israel would use any temporary arrangement for a further land grab.

And Netanyahu has insisted that a deal can be reached only through negotiations. In an interview with CNN on Thursday, he castigated Abbas for “flying around the world” when Ramallah was only “10 minutes from Jerusalem”. “It takes two to tango”, he added.

Menachem Klein, a politics professor at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, said both Israel and the Palestinians were now devising separate strategies for undermining the other’s stance.

“There is an imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, which the Palestinians desperately need to narrow and which Israel wants to widen.”

Klein said Abbas was increasingly isolated, having lost a powerful regional ally in the recently deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The Arab League, he added, was also “distracted” from the peace process as it concentrated on dealing with popular protests across the region.

Instead Abbas has tried to increase his legitimacy in the eyes of the wider international community to make his case at the UN for recognition of Palestinian statehood more credible.

The chief obstacle has been years of bitter acrimony among the Palestinian leadership, with Abbas’ Fatah party in charge of the West Bank and its Islamist rivals in Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip. This problem has been compounded by the long postponement of elections that Abbas needs to refresh his mandate.

The Palestinian president announced last week that he was ready to travel to Gaza, for the first time in four years, to hold reconciliation talks with the Hamas leadership.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, appears to be doing his best to undermine the status of the PA.

Since an intruder killed a family of five at the Jewish settlement of Itamar in the West Bank, the Israeli prime minister has sought to implicate the PA in the attack, accusing it of encouraging incitement.

That message was accentuated by Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, on a visit to Itamar, when he told reporters: “The Palestinian Authority continues the terror in every possible location… It is impossible to talk peace with those who educate for bloodshed.”

Netanyahu also opposes any move towards Palestinian unity. In his CNN interview, the Israeli prime minister ruled out talks with the PA if it included Hamas members, comparing the group to al-Qaeda.

“Can you imagine a peace deal with al-Qaida? Of course not,” he said.

Netanyahu tried too bolster his case by referring to Hamas as part of a “global axis of terror” – along with Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hizbullah – following the Israeli navy’s interception a ship carrying a shipment of arms Israel says was bound for Gaza.

Klein said Israel and the Palestinians’ opposing agendas were deepening the rift between the US and Europe in their approach to resolving the conflict, with the White House likely to side with Israel and veto any attempt by the Palestinians to declare statehood unilaterally.

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