The Middle East Peace Process Show Must Go On

It appears the Americans now have agreed to forgo direct recognition by the Quartet of Israel's Jewish identity, as well as indirect recognition of the legality of the settlements.

In a speech that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he could sign on to "with both hands," U.S. President Barack Obama told the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly that peace is not achieved through General Assembly speeches or even through UN Security Council resolutions.

The American president forgot to add that it is also not achieved through decisions of the Middle East Quartet, the grouping comprised of the United States, the UN, the European Union and Russia.

Quartet dinner - Reuters -

It has been eight years since the Quartet proposed the Middle East road map to the governments of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. In November 2003, the Security Council voted unanimously in favor of President George W. Bush's request to adopt the detailed blueprint, through Resolution 1515.

This past weekend in New York the road map and Resolution 1515 became just another line in an announcement by the Quartet, at the end of the dueling speeches of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Those who have closely followed the peace process will remember that one of the first clauses of the road map requires Israel to dismantle West Bank Jewish settlement outposts - constructed since March 2001 - and to halt construction entirely in the settlements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has trumpeted his exceptional agreement to (partially ) halt construction in the settlements for ten months in 2009-2010. And when the Security Council sought to condemn settlement expansion, Obama directed the United States to veto such a resolution.

The road map set a detailed timetable for the peace process, including a deadline for a final resolution of the conflict by the end of 2005.

Friday's announcement by the Quartet moves the final deadline to the end of 2012.

It's no coincidence that the roadmap didn't give the process another 12 months, but instead allocated until the end of next year. By that time, Obama will have either been reelected or will be a lame duck president, but one way or another, he will be freed of domestic political considerations; Obama will be able to present Netanyahu a bill for all the carrots he provided to the Israeli prime minister.

During that same period, Knesset elections are also expected, and, incidentally, crises with American presidents have twice contributed to the fall from power of a Likud government.

The Quartet's decision to allow a month for negotiations to begin is not coincidental either. The Palestinians are hoping to time a vote on recognition of Palestinian statehood by the UN General Assembly for November 29. That's the anniversary of the UN Partition Resolution that provided for the establishment of Israel.

The parties' conduct throughout the month is expected to influence what position America's ambassador at the UN, Susan Rice, and her European counterparts will take in advance of a vote on Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu is faced with expectations at the hands of Obama and his Quartet colleagues, as mentioned in the Quartet's statement of May 20 - which makes reference to Obama's State Department speech the day before, in which he stated that negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps.

It appears that the Americans now have agreed also to forgo direct recognition by the Quartet of Israel's Jewish identity, as well as indirect recognition of the legality of the settlements. Those provisions were previously included in a draft of a document that the European Union, Russia and the UN were presented with in July, but were noticeably absent from Friday's announcement.

The devil isn't in the details of an agreement but rather in the extent of the determination of the Europeans to fill the role of the United States at the top. Also troubling was the involvement of the Russians, who delayed release of the Quartet statement until the Palestinian application for recognition was presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Will the Americans manage to go on with the show, hoping that in the interim domestic politics will also make room for foreign policy? Will the road map find a tough enough navigator to promote it? Will Palestinian politics permit Abbas to swallow additional bitter pills? And will Netanyahu "gain" another year, as he faces a violent regional conflict?