Netanyahu Attempts Last-minute Damage Control Against Quartet Report on Stalemate in Peace

Senior officials say draft of report - expected to be critical of Israel's actions in West Bank - has been sent to Quartet foreign ministers for final approval.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of their meeting in Moscow, June 7, 2016.
Maxim Shipenkov / AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making last-ditch diplomatic efforts to soften an impending report on the impasse in the peace process, to be released by the Middle East Quartet. The report is expected to harshly criticize Israeli policy in the West Bank.

Both senior Israeli officials and Western diplomats told Haaretz that a draft of the report has been completed and sent for review and approval to the foreign ministers of the Quartet’s members – the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. The final version is expected to be published shortly.

The Quartet foreign ministers decided to draft the report at a meeting in Munich last February, spurred by the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank and the French peace initiative. A statement published after that meeting raised the possibility – for the first time – of cooperation between the Quartet and the UN Security Council. That sparked fears in Israel that the Quartet report was intended as a prelude to a more far-reaching move on the Israeli-Palestinian issue at the Security Council.

Netanyahu intends to either meet personally or speak by phone with the leaders of every Quartet member over the next few days, in an effort to influence the report, and especially its recommendations. On Tuesday, he discussed the report in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A senior Israeli official said the issue also arose during Netanyahu’s recent meeting with Putin.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini attends the Mideast peace summit in in Paris, France, June 3, 2016.
Stephane de Sakutin, Reuters

The prime minister also plans to make a quick trip to Rome next Sunday for meetings on Monday with both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to discuss the report. On Tuesday, he will meet with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the issue with him.

Netanyahu’s goal is to make the report as balanced as possible in terms of the criticism leveled at each side and the degree of responsibility assigned to each for the impasse in the peace process.

Senior diplomats from the U.S., EU, UN and Russia have worked to draft the report over the past three months. The person in charge of actually writing it was the American special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Frank Lowenstein, in coordination with EU envoy Fernando Gentilini, UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov and Russian envoy Sergey Vershinin.

Western diplomats, who asked to remain anonymous due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, said the four men met in Geneva over the weekend to finish the draft and then sent it to the foreign ministers for approval.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians have received a copy of the draft report, though they have been briefed orally over the past few days,. “We don’t think there will be any surprises for the Israelis or the Palestinians regarding what’s written there,” one Western diplomat said.

The report is expected to include two parts:

1. The first part will describe and analyze the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the impasse in the peace process, the escalating violence and the detrimental steps each side has taken. This section is expected to criticize the Palestinians for incitement and violence against Israel, as well as for the domestic political rift between Fatah and Hamas and the Palestinian Authority’s haplessness with regard to reconstructing Gaza following the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel.

Nevertheless, most of the criticism in this section is expected to be aimed at Israel. It will focus primarily on construction in the settlements and Israel’s policy in Area C – the part of the West Bank that was assigned to full Israeli civilian and security control under the Oslo Accords. Inter alia, the report is likely to criticize the demolition of Palestinian houses in Area C and other measures that make Palestinians’ lives there difficult. It is expected to say that Israel’s policy threatens the ability to realize a two-state solution.

2. The second, shorter part of the report will make recommendations for confidence-building measures that each side should take to improve the atmosphere and to preserve the possibility of resuming direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and implementing a two-state solution in the future. These recommendations are expected to deal with construction in the settlements, Israeli policy in Area C and Palestinian incitement, among other issues.

“The recommendations are the central and most important part of the report,” one Western diplomat said. “The recommendations will essentially be an expansion of the Quartet’s previous recommendations from September. The main message is expected to be that there are very negative trends with regard to the two-state solution, and these are the steps that must be taken to change direction. We believe the goal is positive, and it will be possible to use the report as a tool to make progress and do something useful to advance the two-state solution.”

In an effort to influence the content of the report, Israel submitted written material to the Quartet envoys and also gave them oral briefings. But now that the report has been sent for approval at the political level by each Quartet member, both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office believe it will be possible to significantly influence the final product via direct talks between Netanyahu and the Quartet members’ leaders and foreign ministers.

Publication of the Quartet report has already been delayed several times over the past few weeks. It was originally supposed to be published before a meeting of foreign ministers that France convened in Paris on June 3 to promote its own Mideast peace initiative, but Kerry decided to postpone publication in order to dissociate the report as much as possible from the French initiative. Then it was supposed to be published before the meeting of EU foreign ministers that took place in Brussels this Monday, but it was once again delayed.

It is possible the report will be published this Thursday, to coincide with the UN Security Council’s monthly meeting on the Middle East. But both Western diplomats and senior Israeli officials predicted that publication will be delayed once again, until after Netanyahu’s meetings with Kerry, Mogherini and Ban next week. They said the report might be published toward the end of next week, or alternatively in the first week of July.