Israel Lobbies U.S. to Soften Tone of Quartet Report on Settlements

Israel is working to prevent the report, to be issued in the last week of May, from mentioning future possible steps by the UN Security Council on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Alex Brandon, AP

Israel is working to soften the tone of an upcoming report by the United States and the rest of the members of the Middle East Quartet of negotiators – Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. Israel is mainly concerned that the United States will take a harsher position against the settlements.

The report, to be issued in the last week of May, is expected to harshly criticize Israel over construction of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to senior officials in Jerusalem. Among other things, Israel is working to prevent the report from mentioning future possible steps by the UN Security Council on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

At a meeting in Munich in February, the members of the Quartet announced that they would release a report in a few months on the diplomatic freeze between Israel and the Palestinians. For the first time, the statement included the possibility of cooperation between the Quartet and the UN Security Council.

One reason for the report was the Quartet’s decision to respond to the French initiative to call an international peace conference, which had been announced a few weeks earlier, and to ensure that the French did not take over leadership of the process in the international arena.

Senior Israeli officials and Western diplomats said that the report is expected to be relatively brief, to include a description of the situation on the ground and recommendations of steps that Israel and the Palestinians should take. Sources in Jerusalem said the report will include extensive criticism of Israel, especially about construction in the settlements, as well as restrictions Israel imposes on Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli civilian and military control.

The Associated Press reported on Saturday that the United States has agreed to use a tougher tone in the report than it has in the past in condemning the settlements.

The report is also expected to criticize the Palestinian Authority for incitement against Israel and for not stopping terror attacks against Israel.

Although it is still unclear what the practical implications of the report’s criticism will be, Jerusalem ascribes great importance to it. That is because this is the first time in many years that the international community will be formulating an updated position on the freeze in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and will be doing so almost without taking the parties themselves into consideration.

The report’s conclusions could be used as a basis for a continuation of the French initiative or as a basis for formulating U.S. President Barack Obama’s legacy on the subject of the Palestinians and Israel toward the end of the year. Moreover, the report could also serve as a basis for renewing the peace process after a new president moves into the White House.

A senior official in Jerusalem said that Israel is in contact with all members of the Quartet to try to soften the report. The contacts are being coordinated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s representative Isaac Molho, who is holding frequent talks on the subject with the American envoy Frank Lowenstein. Senior Foreign Ministry officials are holding similar talks with representatives of the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Israel has also conveyed various documents to the Quartet to try to provide information that will soften criticism of Israel or at least increase criticism of the Palestinians.

“The main question is how harsh criticism of the settlements will be,” a senior Israeli official said. “All the members of the Quartet can rally around this issue without a problem,” the official said, adding that Israel wants to avoid a situation in which the United States agrees to harden its position and insert a statement in the report that the settlements are illegal. So far, the U.S. position has been that the settlements are not legitimate and are an obstacle to peace.

The senior official said that Israel wants to prevent any mention in the report of possible future action in the UN Security Council. For example, there is concern in Jerusalem over the possibility that the report will be presented by the Quartet to the Security Council as a basis for discussion and adoption as an official resolution.

Another possibility is that the report will recommend that the Security Council take action over the settlements or in setting out principles for renewing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which will relate to borders, Jerusalem, security or refugees.

Over the past few weeks the Quartet report has largely become an American report. UN special envoy Nickolay Mladenov and EU envoy Fernando Gentilini are contributing to the content and recommendations, but Lowenstein is taking the lead in composing the report.

Last Thursday Secretary of State John Kerry met with EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini in Washington to discuss the report and its date of publication. Next week the Quartet is expected to meet in Moscow to try to unify the various drafts.

A senior Israeli official said that from the information the Foreign Ministry has received in Jerusalem, the report is expected to be published on May 25, about a week before the foreign ministers’ summit in Paris on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The French government called the summit as part of its initiative for an international peace conference by the end of the year. The senior official said that the members of the Quartet want to release the report before the Paris summit so they can control its agenda.