Following the formation of a Palestinian unity government between Fatah and Hamas, and the Arab League summit which revived King Abdullah’s peace plan of 2002, it is time for the so-called Middle East Quartet, consisting of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States, to get into action. The Quartet has been dormant since 2000, because any peace process requires negotiations between the parties in conflict.
Instead, the region has witnessed a policy of unilateral steps. Some measures – Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and from the Gaza Strip in 2005, or Hamas’ year-long ceasefire – might be seen as constructive. But, however positive their aims, these steps were taken without consulting the opposite side, thereby entrenching the perception that no partner existed.
By the summer of 2006, with the Lebanon war and Israel’s reoccupation of the Gaza strip, the failure of unilateralism was clear. Today, we know that only a political process that takes each party’s legitimate national interests into account can reduce the risk of renewed violent conflict in the Middle East.
Four steps are needed to restart such a process. The first step, revival of the Quartet, has already been taken. The Quartet remains the most appropriate format, as it combines European ideas and service with UN legitimacy and US leadership. It binds Russia and includes few enough participants to take quick decisions when necessary.
But, aside from its revival, the Quartet should also widen its mandate to deal not only with the Israeli-Palestinian problem, but also with the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese conflicts. This does not preclude individual initiatives on the part of the US administration in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
Currently, the US refusal to negotiate directly with Syria, or to encourage Israel to talk with Syria, prevents such a widening of the Quartet’s mandate. Syria, however, cannot be ignored, since it is capable of undermining attempts at reaching an Israeli-Palestinian track or stabilizing Lebanon. Syria’s behavior is closely related to its prospects for recovering its own occupied territory – the Golan Heights – and is clearly interested in a new peace process with Israel to achieve this national goal.
Second, a “goal map” should replace the Quartet’s largely outdated “road map,” and should state the basic legitimate interests of the parties to the conflict. These interests are not mutually exclusive and can be summarized as follows: Israel’s security, Palestinian statehood, Lebanon’s sovereignty and Syria’s territorial integrity. The Quartet should consult with the individual parties and to specify them further. What does Israel’s security mean and require? How can Palestinian statehood be preserved? Which guarantees are needed to safeguard Lebanon’s sovereignty?
Third, dialogue must be re‑established. This may be the most difficult task, and it is mainly a responsibility for the Europeans. Again, the relationship between Syria and Israel is crucial here. The Israeli government needs to be convinced that resuming peace talks could lead to more constructive Syrian behavior vis-à-vis Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Syrian government itself has realized that it must demonstrate its willingness for dialogue by offering Israel unconditional negotiations, receiving the Iraqi and Palestinian presidents for talks in Damascus, and supporting intra-Palestinian talks. But it has yet to send convincing and reassuring signals towards Lebanon.
In Lebanon itself, serious internal dialogue about the county’s future remains stalled. External actors like the EU or individual EU states could offer their support and facilitate talks on political and constitutional reforms. They should also make clear that no regional deal can be made at the expense of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
With regard to the Palestinians, dialogue capacity of a different kind is needed. Since the Palestinian parliamentary election in January 2006, the international community has been communicating with President Mahmoud Abbas while boycotting the Hamas-led government. But isolating the Palestinian government significantly heightened the chaos in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and has effectively contributed to a deconstruction of statehood. If the EU wants to continue its state-building efforts in Palestine and contribute to a peaceful settlement, it must find ways to talk to and work with the elected government.
The formation of a Palestinian national unity government enables the EU and its partners to resume cooperation with the Palestinian authorities without losing face. Based on the Saudi-sponsored agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the unity government meets the EU Council’s demand that a legitimate Palestinian government “adopts a platform reflecting the Quartet principles.” According to its program, the government will respect all agreements signed by the PLO. Implicitly, this includes recognition of Israel and the obligation to refrain from and fight acts of terrorism. Avoiding contact with individual Palestinian ministers who violate these commitments may be necessary, but ostracizing the entire Palestinian administration must end.
A fourth step, albeit for the future, is an international conference at which all relevant parties would adopt the “goal map” and commence parallel bilateral negotiations on this basis, which would enhance the actors’ interest in seeing the entire process through to a successful conclusion. Meticulous preparation of such a conference is more important than convening it quickly, as initiatives by individual states could undermine the EU’s and Quartet’s effort.
Naturally, the US, as the most important Quartet member, must participate actively. The current EU presidency was able to convince the US administration that reviving the Quartet could be useful. However, the Bush administration’s priority in the region clearly remains Iraq, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In these circumstances, the Europeans and the other Quartet partners could help Bush secure a more flattering legacy with regard to the Middle East. The EU must not, however, let US or Israeli lack of support thwart its efforts to devise a goal map that would be acceptable to all regional parties, or to push Syria onto a more constructive course by engaging it.