21 influential agencies conclude diplomatic effort has made no progress in priority areas including reining in Israeli settlements.
Aid groups: Quartet is failing to improve Palestinians' lives
Leading aid agencies have warned the Middle East Quartet that it is failing to improve the lives of Palestinians or advance the prospects of a peace settlement. The Quartet, which comprises the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia and is represented by Tony Blair, Britain's former prime minister, meets at the UN General Assembly in New York today to assess progress in reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. A detailed and highly critical "progress" report on the Quartet itself, compiled by a coalition of 21 aid agencies, was released yesterday to coincide with the meeting. The agencies, which include Save the Children UK, Care International UK and Christian Aid, urged the Quartet to use the occasion to adopt a robust new approach and prove it can yet be effective. Without "swift and dramatic improvement" towards achieving goals it has set itself "it will become necessary to consider what the future is for the Middle East Quartet", their 28-page report says. The Quartet's "failures could pose a fatal threat to peace", it says. The unusually harsh criticism by the non-governmental organisations is difficult to ignore because they work in the Palestinian Territories, are witnesses to the situation and collected their detailed data on the ground. The report says that in five of 10 priority areas identified by the Quartet in June, "there has been either no progress or an actual deterioration in the situation". Moreover, the Quartet has performed most poorly in the three most urgent areas so that the "visible progress on the ground" it demanded in June has failed to materialise. Firstly, the Quartet has "failed to hold the Israeli authorities to account" for the continued expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the international community regards as a major obstacle to any peace agreement. The Quartet has spoken out about settlements 18 times and "yet settlement expansion is accelerating and taking a drastic toll on Palestinian daily life", the report says. And last, despite a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Quartet has failed to end the blockade of Gaza or significantly improve the humanitarian situation in the territory where 80 per cent of its 1.5 million people remain wholly or partially dependent on aid. "We are facing a vacuum in leadership," said Martha Myers, Care International's director for the Palestinian Territories. "The Quartet has been unable to hold parties to their obligations and this must change fast. The Quartet's credibility is on the line and we hope it will use this meeting [in New York] to show it is able to go beyond rhetoric and make a real difference to the lives of Palestinians and Israelis." George W Bush, the US president, rebooted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at a major conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in last November, seeking a deal on the establishment of a Palestinian state before he leaves office in January. The deadline seems unlikely to be met, the agencies said. Mr Blair's role and that of the Quartet was curtailed by Mr Bush, who assigned his British ally the job of reviving the Palestinian economy to ready it for future statehood. Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, was tasked with the political process. The aid agencies' report acknowledges that since the Annapolis conference, the Quartet has had "partial achievements": in supporting Palestinian security reform, securing donor pledges and increasing fuel for Gaza. But they are less than lukewarm about Mr Blair's efforts as "Quartet Representative", or special envoy. He has had "isolated successes" in implementing a small number of private sector projects, their report says. But his approach to "focus on short-term economic solutions while the long-term problems of closure and settlement expansion remain, dooms these types of projects to failure". However, a spokesman for Mr Blair told The National: "We welcome what the report says about the efforts Mr Blair is making." He said: "In the West Bank, the downward slide of the past few years has been halted" and, as acknowledged in the report, Mr Blair had also helped secure frequencies for a second Palestinian mobile phone network. The spokesman insisted Mr Blair was devoting enough time to his role as Quartet Representative. He "spends at least a week a month in the region [Middle East] and more time on the role. For example, we are here in New York at the moment for meetings around the UN [General Assembly]". Since leaving Downing Street, Mr Blair has taken on a range of other projects. These include setting up the Faith Foundation to bridge gaps between world religions, lectures at Yale University and tackling poverty in Africa and climate change. He also has lucrative part-time consultancy work with JP Morgan and Zurich Financial Services. The aid agencies called on the Quartet to enforce deals they brokered, to hold parties to account for breaking their obligations and to push for a UN resolution to tackle the impact of settlement expansion on the Palestinians. They also recommended that the Quartet considers the Arab Peace Initiative, a plan first floated in 2002 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was then crown prince. The plan, later endorsed by the Arab League, calls on Israel to withdraw from all Arab territories it seized in 1967: the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. In return, all Arab states would offer normal diplomatic relations, including a peace deal that recognises Israel's right to exist and secures its borders. The aid agencies also suggest that the Quartet identifies a representative of regional governments with whom to co-ordinate joint efforts. Daleep Mukarji, director of Christian Aid, said: "The Annapolis process was meant to herald a new dawn for the Middle East peace process. Nearly one year on, we are seeing exponential settlement growth, additional checkpoints and - because of this - further stagnation." "The Quartet is losing its grip on the Middle East peace process," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org