The Palestinians have long sought, and Israel has long resisted, the internationalization of efforts to construct a process that would lead to a durable and comprehensive peace. Independent advocates for a just peace have echoed this call out of the realization that the near monopoly of Washington on stewardship of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy has hindered — and even obstructed — meaningful progress. Never has this fact been more glaring than during the two administrations of President George W. Bush.
The Bush administration’s default position is simply to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush has never sought the resumption of the Oslo process that became moribund at precisely its most promising juncture, the Taba meetings of January 2001. Nor has Bush seized the opportunities presented by successive iterations of the Saudi-drafted peace plan endorsed by the Arab League. Instead, Bush has ridden shotgun while Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert have driven events, first with refusal even to meet Palestinian leaders and then with unilateral measures like the August 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza and four far-flung West Bank settlements. As a result, the two-state solution, identified by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 as a “personal goal,” has faded further and further from view, overshadowed by expanded settlements and the 25-foot concrete wall in East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.
At the same time, and unlike the Clinton administration, the Bush administration has participated in what appears to be an international body supervising the Israeli-Palestinian file — the Quartet of the United States, the United Nations secretariat, the European Union and Russia. Notably, the White House joined the Quartet before “multilateralism” and “working with our allies” became Democratic and realist talking points in the foreign policy establishment’s feeble campaign to stop the invasion of Iraq. So the Quartet cannot be dismissed as a mere sop to domestic critics, but it certainly has been a simulacrum of internationalization. As is obvious to all concerned, the clout in the Quartet resides in Washington.
It is often said that the Quartet is a tool for sanding the rough edges off US policy preferences, in particular through the moderating influence of the UN and the EU. In practice, however, the Quartet has mostly served to cloak the Bush administration’s unilateral peace-blocking policy in the garb of international legitimacy.
Exhibit A is the Quartet’s signature achievement, the “road map” unfurled on April 30, 2003. Though there had been intense pressure for a peace process to replace Oslo throughout late 2001 and 2002, amidst a series of suicide bombings in Israel and Israeli army incursions into the West Bank, the US secured the postponement of the road map’s announcement three times. When it finally was released, the road map’s text bore clear marks of accommodation to US and Israeli demands. First, Bush’s newly discovered passion for Palestinian “reform” was made a condition of final-status negotiations, as was Israel’s requirement of a full cessation of Palestinian armed attacks. More damaging to the road map’s prospects was the phased approach, which left the plan vulnerable to constant derailment by acts of violence and, like Oslo, delayed discussion of the most important issues until the end. Finally, despite EU official Javier Solana’s insistence that “the road map is not the property of one country,” the Bush administration’s fundamental disinterest in the document’s implementation has rendered it effectively moot.
In 2006, upon the capture by Hamas of a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council in internationally vetted elections, the US prevailed upon the Quartet to bless an international financial blockade of the Palestinian Authority — a policy with the clear political goal of impoverishing Palestinians into reversing their democratic choice. The three US-Israeli conditions for talking to the Hamas-led PA became known as the “Quartet conditions.” Cognizant of the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories, the EU eventually softened the blow of the aid embargo with the Temporary International Mechanism. But it was Saudi Arabia — not the Quartet — that broke the strategic impasse by convening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders to hammer out a deal for a “national unity” government.
Today, with the Bush administration engaged in halfhearted attempts to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, one hears fewer mentions in Washington of either the road map or the Quartet. There are signs, meanwhile, that EU member states will not toe Washington’s line of maintaining the blockade on the PA despite the Hamas-Fatah deal. But the raison d’etre of the Quartet — a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace leading to a two-state solution — is arguably less obtainable now than it was at the time of the foursome’s formation.
Israel’s separation barrier can be torn down; settlements and bypass roads can be dismantled or swapped for land in Israel proper. But it is hard to believe that any of this can or will happen absent a genuinely international peace process — one that is not controlled by Washington and is not subject to the vicissitudes of American domestic politics. In the case of the Quartet, one almost suspects that the simulacrum has been used to discredit the real thing.
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, publication of the Middle East Research and Information Project (www.merip.org).