The Quartet New York meeting, including its commitment to creating a mechanism to re-start Palestinian assistance, could mark the re-emergence of this international foursome (US, EU, Russia, UN) as a force in Middle East peace. A multi-lateral approach, with US, EU and moderate Arab State’s partnership at its core, offers hope for kick-starting a new effort at progress on Israel-Palestine. The challenges ahead will revolve around stabilizing the situation in the PA, guaranteeing security, creating a credible option for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and leaving unilateralism behind. This is where US Administration thinking should be focused as the preparations for Israeli PM Olmert’s visit moves into high gear.
The Quartet re-committed themselves to “the principles of partnership and negotiation leading to a two state solution. . . [and] the importance of both parties avoiding unilateral measures which prejudice final status issues.” In addition, “the Quartet expressed its willingness to endorse a temporary international mechanism that is limited in scope and duration, operates with full transparency and accountability, and ensures direct delivery of assistance to the Palestinian people. . . The Quartet welcomed the offer of the European Union to develop and propose such a mechanism.”
This represents the first concrete, meaningful action item for a Quartet meeting to deliver perhaps since the publication of the Roadmap in spring 2003. The emergence of the Quartet as an active Contact Group on moving Israeli-Palestinian issues would potentially be an extremely positive development. The Quartet invited the Jordanian, Egyptian and Saudi Foreign Ministers for a dialogue — this is another encouraging sign as their involvement is a key tool in pursuing any Israeli-Palestinian negotiated agreement. On the ground, the need to address the humanitarian-economic situation and institutional collapse in the Palestinian areas is an extremely urgent one.
That will require US cooperation in the new funding mechanism to be established, especially in allowing banks to transfer funds without sanction. It also needs a solution for the transfer of tax monies collected by Israel that belong to the PA — the new mechanism, to be effective, must also be a channel for these monies. The initial Israeli response seems helpful.
So, the crisis in the PA areas and attendant instability and threat of chaos and violence is the immediate challenge. Deterioration in this regard may take both the unilateral withdrawal and negotiated options off the table. The next task for international, and especially US, efforts should be focused on how to create a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian process towards a permanent status agreement. For this to happen, Palestinian President Abu Mazen will need to concretize, explain and create a context for negotiations on the Palestinian side — how they would work, and how any outcome would be legitimized and implemented, especially in the context of the new Hamas-led government.
The Hamas policy is in need of a re-think, as I have argued in this Haaretz op-ed. A similar line is advocated by former Mossad Chief and Israel National Security Adviser Efraim Halevy, who calls on Israel to talk with its “deathly enemy.” On the Palestinian, and broader Arab and Muslim side, an opportunity to really test what happens when the Muslim Brotherhood are democratically elected and have to assume governance responsibilities is being lost.
It would be a mistake to foreclose the possible prospect of nationalist political Islam being moderated when in office. Efforts to forcibly remove Hamas from power would not only be a blow to democratization processes, but might also undermine nationalist political Islamist movements elsewhere that have chosen the democratic participation path as opposed to the Al-Qaedist post-nationalist Islamist movements revolutionary path (of bring down the capitalist and nation-state system).
Against the political participation of Hamas and other national Muslim Brothers Parties, the Al-Qaedist forces argued that democratic participation was ‘kufr’ (an abomination to Islam). If they can show that the Western call for democracy was all a game and that if Muslim forces won they would be isolated from the outside and removed from power, then the Al-Qaeda tendency will emerge stronger. Lebanese Daily Star editor Rami Khouri has written convincingly on this.
There is an opportunity today. The new Israeli Government has expressed its preference for negotiations over unilateralism in its Coalition Guidelines — even if many consider this to be disingenuous, it should be taken at face value and pursued energetically. Unilateralism’s flaws are increasingly exposed — not least that extremists are strengthened, security not improved, and a two-state solution perhaps indefinitely postponed. On the substance of a possible agreement, the Israeli position today is closer than ever to what is commonly considered to be acceptable parameters for a permanent status peace.
The precedent of settlement evacuation has been established and the ‘not an inch’ ideological right is weakened and in disarray. Polls consistently show a majority of the Israeli public supporting the parameters of Taba, Clinton, Geneva, Ayalon. Unlike in the past, the ‘walk the extra mile’ adage may actually apply today.
There is majority Palestinian public support for the same permanent status package, even in polling since the Hamas election victory. The formal negotiating partner, the PLO Chair, President Abbas, has practically endorsed these guidelines. Hamas itself seems to contain heterogeneous voices on the subject and Cabinet leaders have been careful not to rule out a negotiated solution, as well as indicating their acceptance of the Abbas authority to lead talks. The unilateralist plan does not meet the minimal Palestinian requirements for viability, sustainability and dignity.
For the US, a sincere effort to promote a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace would massively undermine its detractors in the region, boosting its capacity for alliance-building, leadership, and promotion of democratic values. It would be a mistake to relegate the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace to number 3 or even 5 priority in the region (after Iraq, Iran, and perhaps Afghanistan and Darfur), as the continued conflict has region-wide implications for all of the above, in addition to its impact on the “war on terror”.
So when Israeli PM Olmert, arrives in Washington in 10 days, how about this for a message:
Mr. Prime Minister, you have been courageous in explaining to your people the need for further withdrawal from the West Bank, and even in addressing Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem. At home you received a mandate for your courageous ideas and here in Washington your courage is appreciated and applauded. We have noted your preference for a negotiated peace agreement as best guaranteeing Israeli security.
We are committed in the coming months to making this negotiated agreement a possibility and reality. Walking the extra mile will bring great benefits to your country and we will work to ensure that those benefits are maximized. We will pursue this negotiation option in full coordination with you, Mr. Prime Minister, along with our Quartet partners, our allies in the region and of course your Palestinian interlocutor President Abbas.
— Daniel Levy was an advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office, a member of the official Israeli negotiating team at the Oslo B and Taba talks and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.