Mideast Quartet meet in Germany -AFP- Feb 5, 2011
Middle East Quartet meeting in Munich, Germany, February 5, 2011. Photo by AFP
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Growing pessimism about the prospects of a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is prompting new international calls for the unilateral establishment of a Palestinian state.

Representatives of the Middle East Quartet - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - who attended talks held in Tel Aviv and Ramallah last week with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators emerged without much hope for the resumption of peace negotiations in the near future, according to senior Israeli officials and European diplomats. The representatives said that the differences between the two sides were far too wide to get negotiations back on track.

On Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said recognition of a Palestinian state by the European Union is a "possibility that should be kept in mind." Speaking at the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, the newly appointed minister said: "There's no point in recognizing the Palestinian state on our own. It must be done together." His statement comes amid mounting international pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make an overture to the Palestinians.

"Personally we're not there yet," Juppe said referring to EU recognition of a Palestinian state. "I think that it's a possibility that should be kept in mind."

The meeting that the prime minister's representative, Yitzhak Molcho, held with Quartet representatives took place before last Friday night's terrorist attack at the Jewish settlement of Itamar.

Since then, the Prime Minister's Office and Netanyahu in particular have changed their tone on the Palestinian issue, their remarks becoming markedly more militant.

Ever since the attack, Netanyahu has refrained from speaking publicly or privately about the need to advance the peace process or about his intention to make a major policy speech of the kind he delivered at Bar-Ilan University in 2009. On the other hand, he has begun to underline the issue of Palestinian incitement, as well as security concerns, as one that must be addressed in future negotiations.

Netanyahu also reacted with extreme displeasure to a speech delivered by Defense Minster Ehud Barak this week, in which Barak warned of a diplomatic "tsunami."

The envoys from the Quartet arrived in Israel last Thursday and met separately with Israelis and Palestinian representatives. In addition to Molcho, Israel was represented by the deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Ministry, Daniel Taub, and the head of the Israel Defense Force's strategic planning unit, Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion. The Palestinians were represented by Saeb Erekat, despite his resignation as chief Palestinian negotiator over the controversy sparked by the leak to the media of Palestinian documents related to the peace negotiations.

Unlike prior rounds of negotiations, the Israeli delegation came better prepared this time and presented more flexible positions. Molcho told the envoys that Israel would soon take steps on the ground to demonstrate its commitment to concluding a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. Although he was asked about Netanyahu's anticipated policy speech, Molcho did not provide details. He did, though, acknowledge the need for a diplomatic initiative, saying that recent events in the Middle East require progress in the peace process. He told the Quartet representatives that deadlock in the talks was not good for Israel and that Israel wished to take the initiative to address the situation.

In contrast to the relatively positive tone expressed by Israel's representatives, the Palestinians voiced a more rigid stance. Erekat, who had also met with Quartet representatives a week earlier in Brussels, continued to criticize the international community for not pressuring Israel more. Following disclosure of the leaked Palestinian documents and the demonstrations around the Arab world, the Palestinians could not forgo a settlement construction freeze as a precondition to the resumption of negotiations, Erekat said. He also said the talks with Israel would have to be based on a return to the 1967 borders with additional swaps of territory.

European diplomats have said the Quartet envoys emerged from their talks with Israel and the Palestinians feeling quite frustrated. As a result, it was decided to a defer a meeting of Quartet foreign ministers to mid-April and to again consider releasing a statement that would spell out the Quartet's position on possible solutions to the core issues, such as borders, security, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.