Memo to Mideast Quartet: The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Train Derailed Ages Ago

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An unidentified protester holding a Palestinian flag scuffles with Israeli security forces during a joint pro-Palestinian demonstration held by foreign, Israeli and Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, Saturday, July 9, 2011. (Photo: Oren Ziv - AP)

The Obama Administration and its European allies meet Monday in Washington, under the auspices of the Middle East Quartet, in search of a formula to head off a Palestinian bid for recognition of statehood by the U.N. in September. A U.N. vote would be a “train wreck”, U.S. officials like to say, setting up renewed confrontation; instead they insist, the only way to Palestinian independence is via Israel’s consent, secured at the negotiation table.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas insists that a negotiated settlement remains his goal, and that he would gladly drop the U.N. option if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would offer credible negotiating terms. But as far as the Palestinians are concerned, Netanyahu has failed to do that. Not only does he insist on continued settlement construction on occupied territory, but his recent speech to Congress made clear that the Israelis’ maximum offers are less than the minimum expected by the Palestinians, and by the international community, for a negotiated solution.

Hoping to avoid a showdown at the U.N. — in which the Palestinians would carry the support of the vast majority of member states, and any blocking maneuvers by the U.S. and its allies would leave them isolated — the Obama Administration has been desperately trying to erect an alternative by restarting the talks that faltered after only a few weeks last year when Israel refused to freeze settlement activity. But its efforts have thus far proved fruitless.

Now it’s the turn of the Quartet — a group comprising the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N. set up at the behest of the Bush Administration in 2002  to oversee the implementation of President Bush’s “Roadmap”, a document that has long-since been consigned to that dusty archive that houses the 43 years of forgotten peace plans named for leaders who promoted them.

EU Foreign Policy chief Dame Catherine Ashton says the purpose of Monday’s meeting is “to try and adopt a statement that will help the Israelis and Palestinians to bridge the gap, and allow for a return to the negotiating table.”

The problem for Ashton and her U.S. colleagues is that it was “the gap” between the two sides’ basic demands that brought negotiations to a halt last year, and “bridging” it might require compromises that neither side is willing — or feels compelled — to make.

The Palestinians insist they will only resume talks if the Israelis halt settlement construction, and agree to negotiate within clear parameters set out by the international community, prescribing to both sides the broad terms of an acceptable settlement. President Obama made an attempt at doing that in the policy speech (which drew a sharp rebuttal from Netanyahu in May), making clear that a two-state solution would have to be based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, and would also have to address Israel’s security needs. He also recommended that the two sides focus their initial negotiations on issues of borders and security.

But the Europeans made clear that the parameters of the talks would also have to include finding terms for sharing Jerusalem as the capital of both states, and a mutually agreed solution to the status of the Palestinian refugees who lost their homes and land in the process Israel’s creation in 1948 — both topics precluded from Netanyahu’s negotiating terms.

Until now, the Obama Administration, whose positions — in no small part as a result of the considerable influence of Israel’s supporters in U.S. domestic politics — tend to be more indulgent of the Israelis, have swatted away European efforts as annoying interference. (Ashton’s previous attempt at convening the Quartet to develop a statement on negotiation parameters was rebuffed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.) But with little progress in U.S. efforts to restart talks and the clock ticking down towards September when European support for the Israeli-U.S. position will be essential, the EU suddenly finds itself with a tad more leverage.

Still, the outcome of Monday’s meeting is likely to be another relatively bland statement backing a return to negotiations, on terms smudgy enough for their drafters to imagine they can be sold to both sides.

But neither the U.S. nor the Europeans appear ready to reckon with what is blindingly obvious: The reason there are no negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, today, is that the two sides’ bottom lines are simply too far apart to produce any agreement. It’s not that there’s a communication problem that can be solved by talking; on the contrary, the two sides understand each other’s positions only too well. And the imbalance of power between them is so great that Israel remains very comfortable with the status quo, while the Palestinians lack the leverage to alter the Israelis’ calculations.

Netanyahu has built his career on resisting the Oslo Accords, and his slap-down of Obama’s suggestion that a solution be based on the 1967 borders with agreed swaps — conventional wisdom throughout the peace process — is consistent with his refusal to negotiate over Jerusalem or to even discuss the refugee issue, both of which are designated final-status issues under the Oslo agreements.

Nor is there any pressure on Netanyahu to be more accommodating of the Obama Administration’s peace efforts, much less of the Palestinians’ demands. The Israeli prime minister strengthened his domestic political position as a result of staring down Obama, and forcing the U.S. President into a humiliating retreat from his own demand that Israel halt settlement activity. Israel’s economy is humming along; opinion polls show that if an election were held today, Netanyahu would return with a strengthened mandate. Indeed, his government appears on track to be the first in Israel since 1981 to complete its full four-year term of office.

The bad news for those who hold out the prospect of the two-state solution that was the underlying premise of the Oslo peace process being concluded at the negotiating table is that Netanyahu’s rejection of some of its key premises reflects the new Israeli consensus. Any Palestinian belief that the U.S. might pressure Israel into offering more has, on Obama’s watch, been shown to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

It’s quite possible, of course, that some new statement by the Quartet, coupled with the strategic incoherence of a Palestinian leadership that has made itself dependent on Washington’s diplomatic — and even financial — backing, could prompt the Palestinians to rejoin talks rather than defy their Western patrons by going to the U.N.

But it’s also a relatively safe bet that such talks would be short-lived, for the same reasons as last year’s brief season of negotiations collapsed. The net effect of such talks, in fact, would likely be to confirm that after two decades of failure, bilateral negotiations have exhausted their usefulness as path towards ending the conflict. Relying on the two sides to agree on the terms of a two-state solution is an appealing idea, but it has slipped its moorings to reality. Indeed, if it were possible to achieve a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through bilateral negotiations, the Quartet would not be meeting right now looking to head of a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood.

The reason the Palestinians opted to go to the international body in the first place was their belief that negotiation with Netanyahu was unlikely ever to produce an outcome they would deem satisfactory. The real crisis confronting the international community is the failure of negotiations, for no lack of trying, to resolve the conflict. The specter of a U.N. vote is, in fact, a symptom of a train wreck that’s already happened.