Quartet Continues Efforts to Dodge Unilateral Palestinian UN Move

NEW YORK—The Mideast Quartet on Tuesday continued its efforts to find a means to find a way to renew Israel-Palestinian peace talks and avoid “unilateral” moves ahead of a possible diplomatic showdown over the Palestinian statehood bid. A European diplomat told The Mideast Update by email on Tuesday morning that “discussions are continuing,” and another meeting for Quartet envoys had been set for Tuesday afternoon.

Another European diplomat, also in an email to The Mideast Update on Tuesday morning, said, “The Quartet is still looking for a statement that might open up a way towards negotiations and thereby avoiding unilateral steps that would not help on the way to a Palestinian state.”

Efforts by the Quartet—consisting of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union—have apparently yet to bear fruit. The diplomatic flurry comes as the Palestinians have publicly expressed their desire to seek full UN membership and recognition through the UN Security Council. The US is one of five nations with veto power in the Council. They have publicly said they will veto a Palestinian membership bid there.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in discussions that included the Quartet efforts. According to a background press briefing transcript released by the US State Department, a Senior State Department official said the discussion did address a possible Quartet statement on resuming Israel-Palestinian peace talks, but that it was more on the big picture—not specific words or text.

The US official was quoted as saying the talk “was at more of a strategic level than at a level of text [for a statement], about how you create a context to produce those negotiations in a way that doesn’t have either side taking actions that can deeply undermine the possibility of successful negotiations and that doesn’t indefinitely delay, defer, or otherwise distract from an effort to get those negotiations going and to produce the ultimate outcome that everybody wants to see.”

The official thought Russia and the US agreed on the broader goals of re-launching talks and avoiding  damaging unilateral actions. But it does not appear the two superpowers are in agreement over a Palestinian bid at the Security Council as of the briefing.

The official’s repeated mention of the process beyond this week in New York hinted a possible resignation to the inevitability of the Palestinians going to the UN or at least preparations for the day after. But when asked if they were still working to prevent the bid, the US official said, “Our objective is for the two sides to get back to negotiations, and our objective is to not have action in the United Nations try to replace or supplant or otherwise take the place of a negotiated outcome.”

Secretary Clinton also shared the US position with her Russian counterpart. Should the US veto a Palestinian bid at the Security Council, or should the Palestinians drop the attempt, they can still turn to the UN General Assembly for a more symbolic upgrade in UN status. That would not be as significant or legally binding as a Council resolution, but could still be used by the Palestinians to increase the diplomatic and legal pressure on Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again called for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace talks on Monday. Both leaders will be in New York for the UN General Assembly meeting, with Netanyahu saying in comments posted on the Prime Minister’s Office website, “I call on the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority to open direct negotiations in New York, which would continue in Jerusalem and Ramallah. I propose to President Abbas to begin peace negotiations instead of wasting time on futile unilateral measures.”

The Palestinians have expressed a willingness to negotiate—if their preconditions are met—the latest coming in Abbas’ interview with Fox News. However, Israeli settlement construction has been a key sticking point for the Palestinians.

Israel did agree to a 10-month partial settlement construction freeze in 2009-10, but the Palestinians refused to negotiate directly with Israel until the freeze was nearing its end. Newly-restarted talks at the time were suspended by the Palestinians after the freeze was not extended. Israel has expressed frustration at the repeated Palestinian preconditions to renewing the talks.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, met with Abbas on Tuesday. The United Kingdom is a key member of the UN Security Council and the EU. On Monday, speaking from the UN General Assembly in comments posted on the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, Hague expressed concern regarding a Palestinian bid to the Security Council.

Commenting on such a bid for full UN membership, the British diplomat was quoted as saying it was “not a course of action that we recommend because it will just lead to confrontation,” and would be vetoed by the US.

As for the General Assembly option, Hague said the European bloc has yet to announce their intended vote on a Palestinian UN bid in an effort to pressure the sides to return to peace talks.

“We along with all the other twenty-six countries of the European Union have withheld our position on how we would vote on any resolution that may come forward in the General Assembly in order to exert as much pressure on both sides to return to negotiations. That is the only real way forward.”

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, September 21, 2011)