Amidst the major developments of the last few weeks surrounding Iran and the opening of the UN General Assembly, the Quartet - representing the US, the UN Secretariat, the EU and Russia - issued a new policy statement in New York on September 24 about the state of Israeli-Palestinian contacts that was extremely disturbing. Surprisingly, it has received little if any notice in the mainstream media.
As usual, the Quartet meeting in New York that issued the statement was held at a very senior level - including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with the US special envoy George Mitchell, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, and Tony Blair, the Quartet representative.
At the outset, the statement discarded the principle of reciprocity, which not only is closely associated with the diplomatic principles advocated by Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but is also a fundamental axiom of international law. Astoundingly, the Quartet called on both parties to "act on their previous agreements and obligations - in particular adherence to the road map, irrespective of reciprocity (emphasis added)..."
The road map was issued in March 2003 by the Quartet, which was formed by the Bush administration to provide European states with a formal peacemaking role in exchange for gaining their support for the Iraq War.
But the original road map was "performance-based" - movement from one stage to the next was contingent upon the fulfillment by both Israelis and Palestinians of their respective responsibilities. Now this critical element appeared to have been removed. True, the erosion of the road map was helped by past Israeli governments that plunged into permanent-status negotiations before the Palestinians fulfilled their obligations. But it is the new formal position of the Quartet that provides the final blow to the road map's carefully structured conditionality.
In general, the Quartet wanted to provide its own multilateral stamp of approval on President Barack Obama's UN address from September 22. It is to be remembered that Obama's remarks were unusual in their exceptionally long and detailed treatment of the Arab-Israel conflict: Roughly one-tenth of the speech was devoted to the issue of Israel and the Palestinians - far more than any other conflict in the world. He specifically proposed the establishment of "a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967."
In doing so, Obama adopted language that was not balanced out by an equal reference to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which appears in the Quartet road map and did not call for a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines.
Obama's push for the 1967 lines is also evident in his language during his UN address that "America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."
In April 2004, president George W. Bush sent a letter to prime minister Ariel Sharon stating that it was unrealistic to expect that Israel would withdraw from its large "population centers" in the West Bank. This acknowledgement of the settlement blocs granted a portion of the settlements a degree of legitimacy that Obama's formal remarks denied.
It also led Bush to accept the fact that Israel was not going to withdraw to the 1967 lines and was entitled to "defensible borders." The Bush letter, moreover, received massive support from both houses of the US Congress in June 2004, providing it with bipartisan backing (including Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Hillary Clinton). Given the language Obama used at the UN - and the Quartet now backed - it is not surprising that his administration has not openly committed itself to the 2004 letter.
The Quartet statement also goes out of its way to back the Palestinian Authority's new plan for building the institutions of a Palestinian state over the next 24 months - which was drafted by Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. On the one hand, the Fayad Plan appears to address Israel's call for bottom-up peacemaking by tackling head-on the lack of sufficient self-governing bodies on the Palestinian side. On the other hand, it is a program that leads the Palestinian Authority seven-eighths of the way to an independent Palestinian state, leaving ambiguous how the Palestinians get to the finish line. What it leaves open is the possibility of a unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinians or by someone else.
For example, during July the EU's Javier Solana lectured in London and said that if the peace process was going nowhere, the international community should consider recognizing a Palestinian state under a UN resolution even without Israel's consent. He called for a fixed deadline for future negotiations. The Fayad Plan could prepare the groundwork for such international action by providing the Palestinians with the main legal preconditions for recognition: the exercise of effective governmental control, the capacity to engage in foreign relations, and a defined territory.
The last criteria for statehood is the most problematic. According to Solana, after the UN Security Council proclaims the adoption of a two-state solution, it will also adopt further follow-up resolutions regarding the highly contentious issues of refugees, Jerusalem and borders. In short, the Solana plan is an imposed solution, using the UN Security Council as its main instrument, which will decide the issue of Israel's future borders and those of the Palestinian state.
There is an Israeli belief that the Solana plan would not have been floated without consulting high-level US officials. It is difficult to substantiate this argument on the basis of the public record alone. Yet, given the changing language on borders used by the Obama administration, as well as the Quartet's policy statement, this line of argument cannot be dismissed. With the principle of reciprocity jettisoned, there will be a straight path to Palestinian statehood in two years, regardless of whether the Palestinians are fulfilling their obligations under the road map or the Oslo Agreements from the 1990s.
Israeli diplomacy is heading for unchartered waters, having to balance between negotiations with the Palestinians and the possibility of a new muscular multilateralism at the UN, led by the Quartet. What is clear is that if the Palestinians understand that they will receive a Palestinian state on a silver platter in two years time - that will additionally be based on the 1967 lines - then why should Mahmoud Abbas bother to negotiate or make a single concession?
Under such conditions, the Palestinians are likely to prefer advancing the campaign to delegitimize Israel, by increasingly turning to the International Criminal Court and other UN bodies. At the same time they will insist that the Obama administration put its own peace plan on the table that prejudges the outcome of negotiations by detailing future borders. An alternative that has been raised is an Obama side-letter to the Palestinians on borders that neutralizes Bush's past guarantees.
The only way to block this drift in diplomacy is for Israel to be very firm about its positions. It cannot accept any negotiating process with Abbas that allows the Palestinians to multilateralize Israeli-Palestinian differences while negotiators sit across from one another.
Finally, Israel should be insisting on protecting its rights that have been recognized in the past in UN Security Council Resolution 242 and in the bipartisan-backed Bush letter, rather than just letting these past guarantees slide away amidst the current rhetoric about ending "the occupation that began in 1967." Otherwise, Israel will be forced to accept a process whose terms of reference only protect the interests of the Palestinians and leave the State of Israel increasingly exposed.