Mideast Quartet Meets with Parties, But What’s Next for the Peace Process?

Representatives of the Mideast Quartet met separately with the Israelis and the Palestinians in Jerusalem on Wednesday and announced more plans for additional steps to try and revive the dormant peace process. The Quartet—consisting of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia—said the next stage is for the parties to present proposals on two key disputes between the sides: territory and security. But the Palestinians are still refusing to talk until their preconditions are met.

Said the Quartet statement, “The Parties agreed with the Quartet to come forward with comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months in the context of our shared commitment to the objective of direct negotiations leading toward an agreement by the end of 2012.”

The Quartet further noted their envoys agreed with the parties “to meet regularly for the next 90 days to review progress.” Presumably that includes the proposals on territory and security.

Roughly one month ago, the Quartet issued a plan to jumpstart the peace process, including a timeline that would have territory and security proposals presented within three months and a deal reached by the end of next year.

However, it remains unclear how the parties themselves interpreted their agreement on territory and security discussions. The Palestinians went as far as to flatly deny that an agreement to present such proposals had been reached.

According to a report from the WAFA Palestinian news agency, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio that reports of an agreement to present comprehensive proposals within three months were not true.

WAFA quoted a separate statement Erekat issued after the Quartet meeting in which he said that “we explained to the Quartet that we are prepared to sit at the negotiating table as soon as the Israeli government freezes all settlement construction and accepts clear terms of reference,” referring to the 1967 lines.

The 1967 lines were armistice lines between Israel and several Arab nations, including Egypt and Jordan. In this context they would grant the Palestinians the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip, although land swaps with Israel are generally expected.

Regarding the settlement freeze matter, Israel already enacted an unprecedented 10-month partial halt to settlement construction during 2009-10, during most of which the Palestinians refused to upgrade talks to direct negotiations. Direct peace talks were suspended by the Palestinians after the freeze ended.

The Israelis did not explicitly deny the existence of an agreement with the Quartet on proposals for territory and security, but the implication is they see the step coming in the context of renewing peace talks with the Palestinians. They again called on the Palestinians to resume direct negotiations without preconditions.

According to The Jerusalem Post, an Israeli government official said the role of the territory proposal is to “facilitate” the return to talks, but not to turn into a form of indirect negotiations that takes the place of direct talks.

Quartet Representative Tony Blair, who met with the sides in the latest round of talks, expressed a similar position on the purpose for the borders discussion in an interview with The Los Angeles Times prior to the latest meetings. He noted that it’s “not quite” indirect talks with the Quartet acting as mediator, but more to check on how far apart the sides are from each other to “see if there’s a basis for negotiation.”

Prime Minister’s Office spokesman Mark Regev, speaking by phone with The Mideast Update, said that key points of debate in the conflict must be resolved in direct discussions with the Palestinians, while noting the Quartet’s position as a facilitator.

When asked about what Israel is prepared to do regarding the territory and security proposal matter, Regev told The Mideast Update, “Israel believes the substantive issues of the conflict can only be dealt with and resolved in direct negotiations between the parties. The role of the Quartet is to facilitate such a direct discussion.”

When asked about the difference between that and the Quartet statement that proposals were forthcoming, he said, “We see the importance of the Quartet’s role as to facilitate an early-as-possible resumption of direct talks, and we hope that the Palestinians will heed the demand of the international community—that it’s time to return to negotiations.”

The Quartet in their latest statement noted the sides “expressed their readiness to engage with the Quartet,” on the basis of its statement on September 23, to “overcome the current obstacles and resume direct bilateral negotiations without delay or preconditions.”

According to a statement posted on the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office website, Israeli envoy Yitzhak Molcho met with the Quartet representatives for more than two hours “in an effort to find a way to resume direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.” The Israeli statement said the Israelis and the Quartet decided to coordinate a date for the discussions to resume.

Regev told The Mideast Update, “Israel welcomed the statement by the Quartet that called for the resumption of direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians without preconditions. We hope that the Quartet in its meetings in Jerusalem will further that goal and that we will indeed see the early resumption of direct talks.”

He said the time has come for the international community to get the Palestinians back to negotiating. Said Regev, “We believe the international community should be sending a clear and consistent message to the Palestinians that the time of boycotting the negotiating table is over, and that it’s time to restart the peace talks.”

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, October 27, 2011)