Quartet reset? International peacemakers seemingly stumped on Middle East

Laura Rozen

For the small clique that comprises the world's most senior statesmen and -women, the Monday night meal hosted by Hillary Clinton to review efforts to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table might have been expected to follow the usual script: familiar colleagues, familiar talking points, followed by the expected issuing of a joint statement expressing international consensus on the urgent need for resumed negotiations.

Blah blah blah blah.

Or so one might have thought.

But as this week's dinner meeting at the State Department stretched on well past two hours, something extraordinary happened. Or rather, didn't happen. The so-called Middle East Quartet— Clinton, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton—who gathered around the table with Quartet Envoy former British prime minister Tony Blair, could not even agree amongst themselves what to say in a statement. And so they didn't issue one, blaming the "significant gaps" that still exist between the parties. That would be the parties to the conflict, the Israelis and the Palestinians, who weren't even in the room.

So what happened?

Lavrov, speaking at the Russian embassy Tuesday, did little to dispel the perception the meeting was a flop, signaling growing international divisions over how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Adding urgency to the long-vexing issue: Palestinian plans to seek statehood recognition at the UN in September, bypassing negotiations with the Israelis altogether if new talks can't be resumed.

The Quartet meeting wasn't a total loss, Lavrov demurred, when asked about it, adding: "For one, the wine was very good."

But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was put through the paces at a press conference Tuesday, as she tried to mitigate journalists' sense that the Quartet peacemaking apparatus is at best stumped—at worst broken, if not entirely bankrupt.

"So, I hope the dinner was good last night because not a lot seems to have come out of" it, one journalist posed to Nuland. "Why could they not agree on a statement?"

The purpose of the meeting "was not necessarily to issue a statement," Nuland responded. "The main purpose of the Quartet was to have the principals, who have all been working on diplomacy with the parties themselves, come together and assess where we are and talk about how each of the principals, all of the envoys working together, can meet our goal of getting the parties back to the table."

After fielding several more passes at variations on the question, Nuland added: "The major effort yesterday was to concert views on how best to encourage the parties back to the table. ... I'm not going to speak to the private diplomacy that went on in that room."

You get the picture.

Former Washington Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller conceded that even he was surprised the Quartet veteran diplomatic pros couldn't muster the bare minimum of a joint statement -- not that he thought one would have amounted to much.

"I think it was just too hard — given the gaps, [and] differences on substance and politics," Miller said by e-mail Wednesday. "Issuing  a nothing-burger statement would have been worse frankly; they are very serious these days  about avoiding saying or doing things that don't produce."

"Keep in mind, this is never over," he added. "I'm told they are working at lower levels to generate some kind of follow-up."

But diplomats and Mideast analysts have notably not yet definitively explained what the real hold-up was among the international group that is supposed to deliver the parties to the peace table, and U.S. and European officials have been unusually tight-lipped about the specifics.

One report, by Israeli daily Haaretz, said Lavrov refused to agree to a statement that would have called for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state before going into negotiations.

Other analysts suggested that Washington, out of consideration for Israeli sensitivities, refused to have a statement that would have referenced negotiating borders based on Israel's pre 1967 war lines. (This though President Barack Obama himself proposed border negotiations based on '67 lines with mutually agreed swaps in a May 19th speech.) An earlier Israeli news report said that France, which wasn't even directly present at the Quartet meeting, was insisting on a Quartet position that referenced some variation of '67 lines.

And, naturally, Palestinians and Israelis blamed each other for the Quartet coming up empty.

"Israeli officials said Tuesday that the Mideast Quartet refrained from releasing a statement of its conclusions after Monday's meeting due to Palestinian objections," Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot reported. "Officials say the Palestinian Authority opposed a Quartet demand to withdraw their plan to declare statehood unilaterally at the UN in September."

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. meantime, "accused the Quartet of succumbing to Israeli 'pressure,'" the Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday. Erekat "said that it was high time that the US administration stopped treating Israel as if it were a state above the law."

Palestinian spokesman Nabil Sha'ath apparently had another theory: He "credited Moscow Wednesday with silencing a statement by the Mideast Quartet after its meeting earlier this week," Yediot reported in a further piece Wednesday. "He praised Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for his support of the Palestinians and called on the Quartet to adopt the same stance."

One might be advised to bring a few bottles of good wine.