Why the Quartet fears the UN track

The Quartet failed to find a formula for restarting the peace process because it is either unable or unwilling to recognize that both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships are uninterested right now. It failed because all four of its component actors–the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia–are either unable or unwilling to exercise the necessary pressure on the two sides to bring about a viable process. In this sense, there may be something encouraging in the Quartet’s refusal last week in Washington to issue a new formula for renewing talks: the Quartet’s members recognized that silence is a more honorable outcome than another unheeded invitation to negotiate.

The Quartet’s failure parallels Washington’s failure, as expressed in the resignation of presidential emissary George Mitchell and the glaring absence, in President Barack Obama’s State Department speech of May 19, of an ultimatum to renew negotiations. With a presidential election year beginning shortly, the administration’s domestic political considerations take precedent.

So why do they try? Why does Obama make speeches, and why does the Quartet still go through the motions of meeting? Logic would appear to dictate that the embarrassment of "losing" the peace process and being unable to revive it would drive the Quartet partners to take early summer vacations.

The answer appears to lie in the fear, expressed openly by the Quartet partners and particularly their leader, the US, lest the Arab and Palestinian initiative to turn to the UN signal the end of a negotiated solution and usher in a new round of violence. There are three problems with this concern.

First, even the most one-sided UN resolution, one confined to recognizing a Palestinian state and defining its borders and capital, cannot begin to be implemented–if, indeed, it has any binding validity whatsoever–without the renewal of negotiations. Certainly there is no chance the Security Council will approve a resolution that calls for force to be exercised against Israel to compel it to honor the new UN terms. Whether Israel continues to evade negotiations under these new terms or enters them under international pressure, bilateral talks will still be necessary to move the process forward.

Second, and more significantly, the Palestinian UN initiative can still be leveraged by the Quartet, or at least some of its members, into a balanced "win-win" resolution that does indeed move the process closer to a manageable two-state outcome. Such a resolution could give the Palestinians what they want–a state based on the 1967 lines with its capital in East Jerusalem–but balance this with commitments to Israel’s needs in the form of land swaps, recognition as a Jewish state, postponement of discussion of "deal breakers" like the right of return and Jerusalem holy places, and guarantees for security and for resolution of remaining differences through negotiation. Neither side is likely to be overjoyed with this outcome, but both will have plenty to negotiate about in the aftermath and violence will be less likely.

And third, regarding a possible new round of violence: given the current Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and the volatile atmosphere in the surrounding Arab world, it could eventuate any day now with or without a UN resolution.

At the end of the day, the Quartet’s failure reflects its refusal to come to terms with the fundamental truth underlying the UN initiative: neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership is capable of making the concessions required for an end-of-claims resolution of the entire conflict, which is the way negotiations are defined under the Oslo accords. The Palestinian UN initiative for what is in effect a partial, territorial solution is in fact a healthy response to this dilemma. Rather than condemn it, the Quartet should flow with it and leverage it into something constructive.