Quartet mum on Jewish state, set new negotiation deadline

The international mediators scrapped plans to endorse a Jewish state. That was probably a wise choice. Right now, the threat to dissolve the PA, if credible, could be much more significant than moves on Palestinian statehood

The Middle East International Quartet – composed of the US, EU, UN and Russia – issued a statement yesterday, following the Palestinian application for statehood. Initial plans to affirm the 1967 lines as a basis for final borders, and to endorse Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, were scrapped, in a favor of a more process-oriented text.

This was probably a wise choice. The support for 1967 lines is hum-drum enough, having been reaffirmed in numerous international pronouncements, documents and resolutions. Netanyahu and his right-wing allies have tried to make an issue of this over the past year, but as usual, the Israeli prime minister got caught in his own web of manipulation, when it was uncovered that he himself has endorsed such language very recently.

The issue of Israel as a Jewish state is another matter entirely. While generally endorsed by the US, other international actors have been more hesitant. As Roee Ruttenberg explains, this is a problematic step for Palestinians, while having little practical effect on Israel’s actual character, which is, in fact, quite Jewish. Had the Quartet backed this principle in its statement, it would have made it difficult for future Israeli governments to compromise on this point, and thus, would have further reduced the already bleak chances of reaching an agreement.

So, the Quartet just barely implemented the Hippocratic principle: “Do no harm.” Has it done any good? Not really. It has suggested a series of steps, with deadlines attached to each stage, which would supposedly culminate in a final resolution of the conflict by the end of 2012. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted a US official saying that:

the proposal provides “a credible, serious alternative path and we believe that both sides, if they’re true to their words, will find a way to respond favorably to this.” He added that “the idea of offering this timeline gives the parties a sense that this is not open-ended, that there are real goals and that there’s a serious process underway”.

If he managed to say this with a straight face, you have to give credit to American diplomatic skills. After all, the Oslo accords set a deadline for final resolution by 1999, or twelve years ago. George W. Bush announced that a Palestinian state would exist and all issues solved by 2005, six years ago. And those are just the most prominent of a pile-up of missed deadlines for negotiations.

Considering that the current Israeli government is intransigent, and the US has checked out for a while, the one actor which could still make diplomatic waves is, unusually, the Palestinians. Their application for statehood is likely to fail in the Security Council, facing a US veto, and score a largely symbolic victory in the General Assembly.

International actors, as well as Israel, should be far more concerned about hints that the Palestinian Authority might decide to shutter its doors, and hand responsibility back to Israel and the international community. So far, such threats have not been taken seriously. But if this assessment changes and Abbas is really willing to follow through, he could extract major concessions to avoid this scenario, which is likely to terrify Israel and the world much more than Palestinian statehood, or even another surge of violence. It will certainly not be enough to achieve a comprehensive agreement, but steps on the ground, such halting settlement growth? Maybe.

Update: The PA criticizes the statement for not mentioning 1967 lines.