The Quartet: Proximity talks + Positive thinking

Envoys from the Quartet met, separately, with Israeli and Palestinians at the UN’s lovely and venerable Government House — the seat of government built by the British during the Palestine Mandate period — on the southern edge of Jerusalem today.

The location seems to have been specially selected to please the Palestinian side, and was a gesture laden with symbolic significance.

Quartet Special Envoy Tony Blair, who seriously irritated Palestinian officials recently in what they said was a heavy-handed attempt to dissuade them from pursuing their “UN bid” for full membership in the international organization, was also present. Despite some comments that Blair was “persona non grata”, etc, the Palestinian negotiators seemed to have little-to-no problem in dealing with him in these “proximity” or indirect talks, in which the two sides didn’t actually meet each other, but stayed in separate places while the Quartet envoys moved between them.

According to one news report [in the Wall Street Journal, here], Tony Blair was the essential actor in the Quartet meeting, shuttling in the meetings “between Israelis and Palestinians on Wednesday with an international blueprint for a return to negotiations” — which seems to be just ever so slightly misleading, particularly given the Palestinian anger and unease with his performance during the four+ years he’s held his functions, being present in Israel-Palestine less than one week a month in those four+ years, and meanwhile earning a fortune on the side …

The idea, according to a U.S. State Department official speaking ahead of today’s talks, was “to get each of them working on concrete proposals on security and borders / territories”.

Basically, the U.S. says it has heard “positive noises” from the two sides, and is determined to ignore anything else.

So, the Quartet has just passed the first stage of the plan [the two parties should have an initial meeting] proposed on 23 September, the day Mahmoud Abbas deposited the Palestinian “UN bid” at UN headquarters in New York.

In the second stage, which should last for approximately three months, the two sides must each work, separately, on their own proposals on the two issues [security + borders]. If there is no breakthrough at that point, the problems will become more acute. By six months, which is where the first real crunch will be, the two sides are supposed to have made “substantial progress” in their discussions, if not also on their overall relations with each other…

Two days ago, in a briefing to the UN Security Council, the UN Special Coordinator Robert Serry said: “We remind the parties that the Quartet reaffirmed the international legal basis for peace talks and called for the parties to overcome the obstacles and resume negotiations without preconditions. The Quartet further called for proposals within three months on borders and security, with a view to achieving substantial progress within six months and an agreement no later than the end of 2012. The Quartet stressed the need for the parties to refrain from provocations and reiterated their Roadmap obligations”.

Serry also told the Security Council that “The Palestinian application for United Nations membership is being examined by this Council, and is a matter for Member States. Also, the Palestinian request for membership in UNESCO is being reviewed before a vote by the General Conference. This step could have repercussions for the Organizations as it has legal and political implications for the funding provided by some Member States. The Secretary-General is increasingly concerned about ramifications of such a step for the United Nations and asks all to act wisely in determining a course of action”.

Despite this note of caution, or warning, Mahmoud Abbas said in Ramallah that the Palestinians will press ahead with their UNESCO bid, too.

Serry participated in today’s meetings.

UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon reported on Saturday night here that the Quartet participants in the proximity talks were “David Hale from the US, Helga Schmid form the EU, Sergei Vershinin from Russia and Robert Serry from the UN”…

Keinon added that “Back in the early part of 2010, George Mitchell, who was then Obama’s hand-picked Middle East envoy, was doing the same thing that the Quartet representatives tried to do on Wednesday: meeting with the sides to urge, nudge, cajole, pressure them back to direct negotiations. There was even a name given to this whole exercise: proximity talks. Tellingly, more than a year later, we are pretty much at the same spot: trying to get the two sides once again to agree to direct talks, with the Palestinians saying they will only do so if Israel freezes settlement construction, and various types of pressure being exerted on Israel to stop the building. The Quartet, in its plan for renewing negotiations that was unveiled at the UN on September 23, called for a direct meeting between the sides within a month. Instead, what it got was a reincarnation of ‘proximity talks’, and even that three days late. What distinguishes late 2011 from early 2010 is that now the man in the middle is no longer the US represented by Mitchell, nor even Hale, his low-profile replacement (Mitchell handed in his resignation in May). The man in the middle is actually a grouping of men and women – the Quartet representatives. Is this another example of the US leading from behind? Blair, in an interview this week with the Los Angeles Times, said the Quartet’s more active role in the peace process was not due to the US stepping back, because, as he said, ‘the US is still very much there’. But, he said, the US is ‘also saying to the international community, “You’ve go to step up with us here”.’”

After the proximity talks, Serry’s office put out a statement claiming — with remarkable optimism — that “Both Parties expressed their readiness to engage with the Quartet, on the basis of its statement of 23 September, to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct bilateral negotiations without delay or preconditions. The Parties agreed with the Quartet to come forward with comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months in the context of our shared commitment to the objective of direct negotiations leading toward an agreement by the end of 2012. Envoys reiterated the Quartet call of 23 September upon the parties to refrain from provocative actions if negotiations are to be effective. Quartet Envoys agreed with the parties to meet regularly for the next 90 days to review progress”.

However, the Chief Palestinian Negotiator, Saeb Erekat gave no indication that the meeting had been quite so positive. Erekat is back on the job despite having resigned [he now explains that his resignation was not accepted] after a series of unflattering revelations following a major leak of documents [the “Palestine Papers”] from his office and a few other places in Ramallah, and then were used as the basis for a series of explosive programs on Al Jazeera TV about the conduct of the negotiations in recent years. 

Instead, after the Proximity Talks hosted by the Quartet, a statement was issued in Erekat’s name saying that “We explained to the Quartet that we are prepared to sit at the negotiating table as soon as the Israeli government freezes all settlement construction and accepts clear terms of reference, specifically the 1967 borders. These are not favors that Israel is doing for us. These are its obligations in accordance with international law and the Road Map. Anything short of that will simply put us back on the failed track that we have been on for the last 20 years”.  The Palestinian participants in these meetings were, apparently Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyah.

Before these Proximity talks, Erekat issued a statement saying that the continuing Israeli settlement enterprise in occupied Palestinian territory was nothing other than “legalized looting”.

According to a press statement published by the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department, “Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat said, ‘All Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, are illegal according to international humanitarian law. There are no exceptions to this well-established legal principle’. Dr. Erekat responded to attempts by the Israeli government to draw false distinctions between different kinds of illegal settlement construction, whereby Israel alleges that there is so-called private and public construction. ‘Looting is not made legal under any circumstance. International humanitarian law and relevant UN resolutions draw no distinction between different forms of settlement construction. These actions constitute war crimes under the Rome Statute’, said Dr. Erekat”. This statement is posted here.

According to Israeli media reports, the Israeli participant in the Quartet’s Proximity talks with the two parties was Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s aide, Isaac Molcho.

After the Proximity talks with the Quartet,  Fatah’s Revolutionary Council was convened this evening [Wednesday] for a meeting in the Muqata’a in Ramallah, presided over by Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas.

UPDATE: On Thursday, the second day of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, Fatah + PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas [who continues as President of the Palestinian Authority, or PA, though his term of office has legally expired] reportedly said in the Fatah meetings that “it was important to address concerns that the Palestinian Authority had become defunct.
‘Where are we going? That’s what I said to (US) President (Barack) Obama’, he said, according to a text of his address…’The people and Palestinian institutions are asking what the point of its continued existence is’.” This is reported by the AFP news agency, here.

With one notable exception, Israeli officials were relatively quiet in advance of the meetings in Jerusalem, and also afterwards as well.

The exception was Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who escalated the direct personal attacks he made earlier thiso week against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Today, Lieberman’s office distributed a document claiming that Palestinian President is the main obstacle to the peace process, and said that “The unavoidable conclusion is that there will be no agreement as long as (Abbas) is the leader of the Palestinian Authority, especially given the fact that he is sacrificing Palestinian interests for his own personal future”. Haaretz reports that this document was “sent to all 27 European Union ambassadors in Israel and to ambassadors from the U.S., Russia, China, India, Japan, Colombia and Quartet envoy Tony Blair”.

The Haaretz report added that “The Foreign Ministry distributed the document without co-ordinating with the relevant departments, who found out about it only when they were asked to pass it on to foreign embassies. Many foreign ambassadors called the Foreign Ministry asking if the document represent’s the official position of the ministry or of the state of Israel. ‘We didn’t know what to respond’, said a foreign ministry official”. This is posted on Haaretz here.

On Monday, Lieberman reportedly said that “If there is one obstacle that should be removed immediately, it is [Abbas] … If he were to return the keys and resign, it would not be a threat, but a blessing … The only thing that interests Abbas is to inscribe himself in the history books as he who brought about the Palestinian state and the reconciliation with Hamas … Anyone who succeeds him would be better for Israel. If Abu Mazen goes, there would be a chance to reignite the peace process.” This is also reported in Haaretz, here.

In response, according to that same article in Haaretz, Palestinian Authority Civilian Affairs minister Hussein as-Sheikh wrote to Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to complain that Lieberman’s remarks represent “explicit incitement against President Mahmoud Abbas”, and “a direct threat against a natural partner for peace … [W]e see them as an explicit call to kill president Abbas … and could be “seen as a green light that could be taken advantage by extremists”.

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