The Middle East Quartet is a self-appointed committee of representatives, composed of the United States (U.S.), the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN) and the Russian Federation, and was formally established in May 2002 during the height of the Second Intifada by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. The group initially sought to broker a “cease-fire” and encourage both parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to return to the negotiating table. Over time, however, the Quartet became a permanent forum focused on pushing the so-called “peace process” forward. Touted as an “international” supervising body with the influence necessary to achieve a final resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, superficially, the motivations behind creating the Quartet seemed progressive. However, a deeper look at the Quartet, its declarations, and its actions reveals that, rather than being part of the solution, it has been a major part of the problem.
The failure of the international community to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law is one of the primary reasons that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has continued for so long. The Quartet’s member nations have been particularly responsible for protecting the Israeli government from liability for its breaches of numerous UN resolutions and declarations, various human rights conventions, and the laws of war. Consequently, by permitting the Israeli government to flout international law, the Quartet has acted as little more than a toothless body incapable of ending the conflict.
The Inherent Failure of the Quartet
The Quartet’s shortcomings are reflections of its members’ individual biases and deficiencies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As history has shown, two of the Quartet’s most powerful and influential members, the U.S. and the EU, have decisively supported the Israeli position, while the more-balanced views of the UN and Russia have tended to be marginalized.
The United Nations
The UN was conceived as a central forum for international negotiations and the prime body for ensuring member countries acted in accordance with international law. With regards to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, the UN in general, and the Security Council in particular, has grossly failed to uphold international law and to protect the indigenous population and has tacitly and sometimes explicitly supported the occupation. Although some UN organizations, such as the Human Rights Council, have documented and harshly criticized Israel’s activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, efforts to hold Israel accountable for its breaches of international law have been few and far between. As Israeli aggression and colonization intensified over time, the UN was sidelined as the conflict’s primary mediator and replaced by the United States.
The United States
The United States’ “special relationship” with Israel is widely known and heavily documented. Particularly since 1967, the United States has been Israel’s principal political, economic, and military backer and, through regular use of its Security Council veto, has provided carte blanche for Israel to continue its belligerent activities. The zenith of America’s role in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came during and after the 1993 Oslo Accords, when the United States hosted numerous talks that focused on interim problems and delayed consideration of core issues, such as the status of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem. The agreements that emerged from these negotiations did little but worsen the situation for Palestinians living inside the Occupied Territories.
The European Union
In comparison to the United States, the European Union has a seemingly more balanced approach to the conflict. As the PA’s biggest donor, the EU has often been more critical towards Israel, particularly with regards to its settlement activities and military violence. However, beyond this rhetoric, much of EU policy has done little more than accommodate Israeli violations of international law.
In fact, the EU position can largely be categorized as subservient to U.S. policy. This does not mean that all members of the EU are unified in this policy. Motivated in large part by the desire to cease footing the bill for the occupation, a number of EU officials have sought a more prominent and positive role in the political discussions. Nonetheless, the EU continues to place primary importance on Israel’s security needs and has been susceptible to U.S. and Israeli pressures on issues such as the siege of the Gaza Strip, the boycott of the Hamas-led PA after the 2006 parliamentary elections, and Israel’s settlement expansion activities. Indeed, since 2001, the EU has also developed substantial economic, political, and military ties with Israel. The depth of this relationship is of such degree that Israel is now considered a de-facto “member of the European Union”.
The Russian Federation
Although the Russian Federation has less influence in the Quartet, it has taken perhaps the most balanced approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In general, Russian-Israeli relations have been strained by Russia’s support for Arab countries as well as Palestinian and Lebanese resistance organizations, and its harsher tone towards Israel’s actions. With over one million former Russian citizens living inside Israel, Russia has also attempted to use its connections with the country to improve Israeli policies towards the Occupied Territories. Nonetheless, Russian policy remains passive and cautious, revealing the country’s diminshed international political power since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has been marked by frequent acquiescence to Israeli interests.
Two other examples reflect the Quartet’s partiality, and, in turn, it’s essential failure as a fair and just mediator for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: (1) the Quartet’s “special envoys”; and (2) the Quartet’s unquestioning embrace of the never-ending “peace process” and two-state solution.
The Quartet’s “Special Envoys”
There have been two figures appointed as special envoys for the Quartet, both of whom are closely linked with Israel. The first, James D. Wolfensohn, was a former president of the World Bank and was appointed as special envoy during Israel’s “disengagement from Gaza” in April 2005. Wolfensohn was primarily tasked with developing the Palestinian economy, but resigned in frustration at the boycott of the Hamas-led PA after the 2006 elections as well as Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian movement in the Occupied Territories. It was subsequently discovered that Wolfensohn invested in an Israeli company that develops transport infrastructure for illegal Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Over Russia’s objections, Tony Blair was appointed as the Quartet’s second special envoy hours after he stepped down as British Prime Minister in June 2007. More so than Wolfensohn, Blair’s selection was troubling given his “unremitting record of bias towards Israel”.
The Impossible Two-State Solution
“It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. After 17 years of futile negotiations, the Quartet should now know that, for Palestinians, entering into yet another negotiations process amounts to insanity…But the Quartet – as led by the U.S. – seems to be content with continuing to allow Israel to violate international law with impunity while demanding that Palestinians idly sit by. Instead of pushing for new negotiations (that will eventually fail) the Quartet should be discussing sanctioning and boycotting Israel until it abides by international law and frees Palestinians from its 6 decades-long grip.”
The above statement from Diana Buttu, a former PLO legal advisor and negotiator, captures the frustrations and growing anger within the Palestinian camp. Palestinian negotiators have continuously compromised on key Palestinian interests in the hopes of securing an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. However, after decades of fruitless negotiations, the Palestinians have been left with relentless Israeli colonization of the territories, more house demolitions, a tightening of Israel’s grip on Palestinian society, economy, and daily life, the construction of an illegal barrier snaking deep into the West Bank, and an increase in violent repression of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces. Israeli officials have made it clear that final settlement negotiations cannot proceed without Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state,” agreement that Palestinian refugees will not return to their homes in Israel, acceptance of long-term Israeli military control over the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, and a completely demilitarized Palestinian state with no control over its natural resources or borders. All this combined with the continuous siege of the Gaza Strip and the fragmentation of the West Bank into disconnected enclaves has made the viability of the two-state solution increasingly questionable.
Other than sanctioning the Palestinian side and mildly criticizing Israel, the Quartet has done little to alter or improve these circumstances. The Palestinians’ recent drive for UN recognition of a Palestinian state stems from their frustration with this stagnant and unjust negotiations process. In response, the Quartet has offered little beyond condemning any form of Palestinian resistance and calling for a return to negotiations, a call that has been increasingly repeated as the September deadline for the declaration of Palestinian statehood approaches.
This long-standing, highly dangerous, and unequal state of affairs is unsustainable and demands an equally complex, creative, and drastic solution. If the Quartet is to truly have a positive effect in ending the conflict, two major shifts must occur. First, the Quartet must expand to incorporate nations and supra-national bodies that can serve as a counter-weight to those Quartet members with strong pro-Israel biases. Second, the Quartet’s members must acknowledge that the two-state solution is impractical and violates international law, particularly with regard to the Palestinian refugees.
There have been growing demands to drop the two-state solution and replace it with a shared secular democratic state that allows for the return of Palestinian refugees and simultaneously ensures the protection and inclusion of all. If the Quartet intends to act as a realistic constructive player in solving the conflict it must begin considering the possibility that such a state may be the only viable solution to one of the world’s most intense and sensitive struggles.
*Yazan Al-Saadi holds a BA Honors in Economics from Queen’s University, Canada and a Master’s of Arts in Globalization, Development, and International Law from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is currently working as a journalist and editor for an English-language newspaper in Kuwait and is a freelance researcher and writer.