Tough Challenges for the Quartet

As the Quartet convenes tomorrow in New York, it would do well to acknowledge three fundamental problems undermining its work and perhaps even its future existence.

Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval
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Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval

As the international Middle East Quartet of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia convenes tomorrow in New York, it would do well to acknowledge three fundamental problems undermining its work and perhaps even its future existence.

First, its one and only plan, the road map, has expired and will remain obsolete unless the Quartet chooses to update it. Second, the Quartet's reaction to the election of Hamas, and the three conditions it put to the Palestinian Authority, have not produced the intended outcome. And third, the Quartet is not recognized as a relevant address by one of the main parties - the Israeli government.

Of these, the most urgent problem - and the one likely to dominate tomorrow's discussions - is the Quartet's policy vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority.

That the Quartet's policy decisions in the wake of the January elections have so far failed to produce the desired effect is becoming painfully evident. Not only has the Hamas-led Palestinian government not met the Quartet's three conditions - namely, committing itself to nonviolence, recognizing Israel and accepting previous agreements and obligations, including the road map - but the suspension of donor aid is slowly creating a humanitarian catastrophe which the Quartet must now work to prevent.

In the meantime, the Quartet's actions have only further radicalized Palestinian society, and whatever leverage the Quartet had hoped to use over the PA has been seriously undercut by the very sanctions it put into effect.

One possible reason for the Quartet's failure is that it acted too quickly in setting its conditions to the Palestinian Authority and too categorically in defining them. By dictating its demands already on January 30, a mere five days after the Palestinian elections, the Quartet shut the door on a potentially necessary dialog with the democratically-elected leaders of the Palestinian Authority, a dialog that could have given the movement an opportunity to internalize the meaning of its victory and to recognize the need to address international demands.

And by defining its conditions too categorically, the Quartet failed to recognize that, however important are the principles underlying each and every one of its three conditions, they are not equally important, and meeting one need not carry the same significance as meeting another. By grouping the three conditions together, the Quartet created an unnecessary identity between them (where distinctions would have been more instructive), and it needlessly raised the bar too high for Hamas to pass, certainly in one single leap.

In the face of this bleak reality, several steps may be called for.

Without for a moment abandoning its principles, the Quartet could reframe the three conditions in a memorandum of understanding with the PA that will prioritize the conditions and set clear benchmarks for meeting each of them.

This could mean, for instance, that in the immediate term, the Palestinian government renounces terrorism and works to stabilize the situation on the ground. It would work to establish law and order, control all the militias (including not only its own, but also those of Islamic Jihad, Fatah and others), and ensure that no artillery and rocket attacks are directed at Israel. In return, the Quartet and other donor countries would resume their financial aid to the PA and establish contacts with its officials.

An additional benchmark could include a commitment by the Palestinian government to assume full responsibility for its legal duties as the new government of the PA, and hence to not violate previous agreements. An official endorsement of these agreements would signify another benchmark.

As for recognition of Israel, several options are available. The condition can be linked to a reciprocal recognition by Israel of the Palestinian right to establish an independent state within the 1967 borders. Alternatively, the issue can be put off until the end of the negotiating process. Recognition is an essential principle of international code of conduct, but it must be reciprocal; and it need not serve as a precondition to a negotiated process if it is clearly understood to comprise its end. That, after all, was the case with both Egypt and Jordan.

The Quartet's rewards for meeting each benchmark should be clearly spelled out. They can include, in addition to the resumption of financial aid and the establishment of official contacts, an upgrade of relations to a diplomatic level and a package of social, political and economic incentives.

Last but not least, the Quartet should draft a separate memorandum of understanding with Israel. The exact content of such a memorandum may not be that important, although it should definitely include an understanding that Israel immediately and unconditionally resumes the transfer of Palestinian tax money it collects at the borders.

More important, however, is the very act of concluding such a memorandum if through such a document Israel was brought to recognize the Quartet as such. Israeli officials have, of course, met over the past four years with individual members of the Quartet, but never collectively, never together - never, that is, as a Quartet.

Israel's unofficial boycott of the Quartet is perhaps the biggest diplomatic open secret in current Mideast negotiations. Clearly, if the U.S., EU, UN and Russia can't bring Israel to recognize the Quartet, there can be little confidence in the Quartet's ability to do much more. Yet it must achieve much more or else refrain from further involvement, for to continue playing a counter-productive role is worse than playing no role at all.

The writer is a policy analyst with the Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF), a Tel Aviv-based think tank dedicated to bringing about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.