The Quartet’s swan song

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Not only is the roadmap teetering on the edge of death, but the Quartet that was created to promote this latest Arab-Israeli peace effort is also close to disintegration. Instead of the promised harmony, the members continue their solo performances and each seeks the spotlight. While European officials are making pilgrimages to Yasir Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah, United States officials meet Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in Jericho. And the faces of European Union leaders such as Javier Solana and George Papandreou, as well as perennial United Nations representative Terje Roed-Larsen, were all missing from the group photos of the Sharm al-Sheikh and Aqaba summits. Like Arafat, the Quartet watched the show, conducted by President Bush, on television.

Indeed the Quartet, like the roadmap, had a very inauspicious debut, demonstrating that the core issues that contributed to the catastrophic end of Oslo have not been resolved. During the Oslo phase, often competing policies of the US and Europe caused confusion and allowed the main actors to seek better terms by shuffling between the two main mediators. Now, amidst the deep fractures between the US and “Old” Europe over Iraq, and Israeli anger over European paternalism and betrayal of democratic principles (amplified in the UN), the prospects of a useful role for the Quartet are essentially zero.

The violence that followed the introduction of the roadmap was, in part, the result of the flawed Quartet framework. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s determination to publish the text immediately after the defeat of Saddam Hussein prevented Mahmoud Abbas from wresting control over the security apparatus from Arafat. Blair felt he needed a quick release in order to appease constituencies angered by the British position on the Iraq war. This gave Arafat enough power to sabotage Israeli-Palestinian security coordination, and, according to reports, to dispatch terrorists from his muqata’a headquarters.

At the same time, the premature presentation of this initiative ensured that Abbas would remain weak. The various factions, including Hamas, were thus invited to try their luck in destabilizing the new Palestinian government and the roadmap process. The results included the murder of four soldiers guarding the highly symbolic Erez crossing (where Palestinians enter Israel to work), followed by an Israeli targeted attack against a Hamas leader, and then the very brutal bus bombing in Jerusalem. Together, these initial but readily predictable failures may be fatal for the roadmap.

In terms of meeting the difficult challenges of implementing the roadmap on the ground, the EU appears to have little to offer. European leaders, as well as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, again denounced the terror attacks by Hamas, and issued more ritual calls to end the violence, as if such statements had any impact whatsoever. In contrast, President Bush increased the level of his direct involvement, reversing his initial stand and accepting Israeli actions to end terrorism conducted by Hamas. The US also threatened to take action against countries that provide assistance to terror groups, while the EU could only hint in the vaguest terms regarding possible sanctions against Hamas. And as the Americans belatedly dispatched the initial monitoring group, and forced resumption of the Israeli and Palestinian security talks in a desperate hope to save the roadmap, Europe and the UN remained on the sidelines, without influence on such critical steps.

From an Israeli perspective, the main rationale for the Quartet is to keep the other three actors from interfering with the policies pursued by the Americans. The Israeli view of the EU has become increasingly bitter, based on the European adoption of the Palestinian narrative, focusing on “settlement, occupation and victimization” (as if the conflict began in 1967). Europeans and the UN are seen to pander to growing Muslim populations and oil dependency, at Israel’s expense. Anti-Semitism and paternalism (particularly from the French) still play a role and, in contrast to the US, Europe puts little emphasis on norms such as democracy and freedom. In the entire Oslo period and well beyond, the EU never halted the flow of funds to the Palestinian Authority despite its corruption and direct involvement in terror, and the investigation demanded by the EU’s parliament is being conducted in secret. And finally, Israelis realize that while the other members of the Quartet will advocate “painful concessions” and risk-taking for Israel, only the US will assist Israel if and when such policies go badly wrong.

These problems were reflected in the first disastrous days of the roadmap’s life. It is now clear that only the full force of “Pax Americana”, without petty political competition from its “partners”, may be able to create some stability. Perhaps by banging enough heads together, the Americans may force the disarming of Hamas and force the PA to ensure that it has a monopoly on the use of force, as necessary for any proto-state. If they succeed, this could also set the stage for beginning the deep changes necessary for transforming the conflict. For their part, the other three members of the Quartet need to examine their roles and past failures more critically, while avoiding contributing to the failure of another peace process, and to more violence and murder.

Professor Gerald M. Steinberg is director of the Program on Conflict Management and Resolution at Bar Ilan University, and a member of the Political Studies Department.

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