x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Save the Quartet from itself by including Arab powers

By reforming the ineffective Quartet, influential regional countries would be given an important role and a stake in solving this intractable Middle East conflict.

For 10 long years, the Quartet on the Middle East has sought, unsuccessfully, to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bring about a two-state solution. The group, comprising the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, has talked and made empty proclamations while enormous changes have occurred around them: the "war on terror" has come and gone, the invasion of Iraq shattered that country and the Arab Spring is still taking place.

In all those years, the Quartet has stuck to the same tired script, speaking the language of "legitimacy" and "negotiation", while Israeli settlements continue, while the siege of Gaza continues, while a future Palestinian state is dissected by checkpoints, and while Hamas and Fatah have torn themselves apart with their rivalry.

Attempts to change the situation on the ground for Palestinians, whether by the international community's effort to break the siege of Gaza, or by the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations, have been opposed by the Quartet. This has been especially true of Tony Blair, a man whose appointment as the Special Envoy must surely herald - to reuse the apocryphal quote from Tom Lehrer about Henry Kissinger - "the death of satire".

Last year, shortly after the Palestinian Authority first sought recognition at the United Nations, the Quartet agreed to a new framework. As with so many of its declarations over the decade, it appeared utterly unrealistic: the parties were to sit down within a month for talks, make serious proposals within three months and have an agreement by the end of 2012. That deadline expires in a couple of weeks and the parties still have not sat down for meaningful dialogue.

In reality, there is a framework already in place. The Oslo Accords established the parameters of a two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative has offered peace to Israel building on the Accords. The initiative, tabled by Saudi Arabia in 2002, offers recognition to Israel by all Arab countries in return for its withdrawal from occupied Palestinian land.

In reality, the initiative offers Israel more than Oslo does, and more than it could expect from negotiations with the PA. Still, the Israelis have rejected it. On Sunday, Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jaber Al Thani suggested that the offer might be withdrawn - since Israel has shown no interest in accepting it.

A new direction is needed. Following Egypt's negotiation of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, it is clear that Arab and regional countries need a larger role.

The Arab world must take greater responsibility for the conflict that remains at the heart of the region and its politics. Arab countries such as Egypt and regional powers such as Turkey are already doing this - and by reforming the Quartet, a new legitimacy could be injected.

The way to do this would be to expand the "Quartet" to become a quintet. This fifth seat would be occupied by a special envoy, reporting to three countries: Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Post-revolution Egypt has the political will, and to a degree the moral authority, to represent the wishes of Egyptians on Palestinian issues. Given its border with Gaza, and its historic role both in the region and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Egypt's would be a credible voice.

The same applies to Turkey, which has increasingly asserted its role in recent years. Saudi Arabia has also played a surprisingly strong part behind the scenes, briefing the Quartet and often warning its closest western partner, the United States, of the dangers of letting the Palestinian issue slip off the world's agenda. Over the years, Riyadh has funded both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Such an addition to the Quartet would, naturally, sideline the Arab League. But the Arab League - with the exception of some support for an intervention last year in Libya - has been ineffective, riven by internal conflicts and failing to promote a coherent regional policy.

What would a Quintet prove? Would it not be better to let the Quartet - which is, in any case, unelected and unaccountable - simply fade away? Perhaps. The Quartet has too often served as a cover for US and Israeli policy - at one point in 2011, Palestinians accused Tony Blair of merely trumpeting Israel's talking points.

Yet the Quartet is unlikely to be dissolved. Rather, as with the Arab Peace Initiative and the Palestinian UN bid, regional actors will simply find ways to work around it. But a revitalised Quintet could bring regional states, along with their money and political capital, into the international framework.

With a fifth seat at the table, options that previously could not be countenanced - such as talking to Hamas - become possible. Moreover, it would bring the largest movement in the Arab world - the Muslim Brotherhood - into a position where it could have a stake in solving the conflict. That would strengthen Hamas, certainly, but it would also tie the security of Israel to the development of Egypt.

The Arab Spring is sweeping away old certainties of the region. The history of the Palestinian conflict (and, indeed, one of its origins) shows that deals about the territories have been made without Arab input. By reforming the ineffective Quartet, influential regional countries would be given an important role and a stake in solving this intractable Middle East conflict.

 

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai