Quartet strikes a chord, calls for Palestinian state in 24 months

Representatives of the Quartet on the Middle East are in Moscow where they have called for a halt to “unilateral” actions on the part of Israel and the Palestinians in order to jump-start peace talks.

Israel’s recent announcement that it would build 1,600 new settlements on contested property in East Jerusalem topped the agenda of the Quartet, comprised of the United States, the European Union, United Nations and Russia.

The delegates declared their unanimous opposition to Israel’s abruptly announced plan, and called for an immediate halt to any new construction so that “proximity talks” between the Israelis and Palestinians may get underway.

“The language is very clear. We emphasized that the circumstances, which made it possible to agree upon the start of indirect talks, must be honored,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a press conference after the ministerial session on Friday.

Lavrov then stated in no uncertain terms that “unilateral actions” on the part of the parties under discussion would not be tolerated.

“The statement also clearly sets out other provisions regarding the unacceptability of any unilateral action which forecloses the parties’ arrangement on the question of the final status,” he said, before specifically mentioning Israel.

“We are convinced that Israel will hear all this and understand.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Israeli-Palestinian talks should lead to a peace agreement within 24 months, while reminding the feuding sides of their responsibilities under international law.

“Recalling that the annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognised by the international community, the Quartet underscores that the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties, and condemns the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem,” Ban Ki-moon said, before throwing his heavy global weight behind a Palestinian state.

“The Quartet continues to support the Palestinian authority’s plan of 2009 for building a Palestinian state within 24 months, as a demonstration of the Palestinians’ serious commitment to an independant state that provides good governance, opportunity, justice and security for the Palestinian people."

The United Nations Secretary General then urged the government of Israel to undertake a series of initiatives that will certainly be greeted with very mixed opinion in Jerusalem.

“The Quartet urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, dismantle outposts erected since March 2001 and to refrain from demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem,” the UN figurehead noted.

But on the very day that the Quartet was meeting in the Russian capital, fresh violence between Israel and the Palestinians underscored how difficult it will be for Mr. Ban’s demands to come to fruition.

In response to a rocket attack on the Netiv Haasara kibbutz, which sits only a few hundred meters from the border with Gaza, Israel responded with aerial attacks on several targets in Gaza City, including a workshop and a suspected tunnel under the Gaza-Egypt border.

Will the United States keep the pressure on Israel?

Israel placed the United States in a very awkward position before the Moscow talks when it abruptly announced plans to construct 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem at the very same time that US Vice President Joseph Biden was meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem to promote peace.

If Israel had been gambling that its “special relationship” with Washington could endure such impertinence, it wagered horribly wrong: the Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren was immediately summoned to the White House for a diplomatic dressing down, Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell cancelled his planned trip to Israel for planned talks, while Hillary Clinton spent 45 minutes on the telephone with Prime Minister Netanyahu with a set of demands for the Israeli leader.

Clinton said in Moscow that her conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been “useful and productive,” while adding that “we are continuing our discussions with him and his government.”

It may be somewhat insightful at this point – especially considering the importance of “body language” – to offer some general comments about Clinton’s manner and tone while addressing the press conference following the Quartet’s meeting.

To say that the US secretary of state appeared distressed and even extremely agitated would be putting the matter lightly. Although the subject at hand is a very serious one, Clinton’s grave somberness suggested that her telephone conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu just hours before was indeed “useful and productive,” but in the most negative sense of that characterization.

But there were other indications that the telephone conversation – the contents of which were never disclosed – was far from being an amiable one. Clinton never mentions Netanyahu by name in the course of the conference, instead referring to “him” and “his government.” This may be interpreted in various different ways, but it seems that if Washington and Tel Aviv were really back on the same page, diplomatic decorum would demand that Clinton at least address the Israeli prime minister by his name.

“What I heard from the prime minister in response to the reports we made was useful and productive and we are continuing our discussions with him and his government,” Clinton said in response to a reporter from Reuters.

At this point, Clinton confirmed that US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell would be going back to the region to meet with “him.”

Clinton continued: “The goal of the Quartet, like the goal of the United States government, is to get the proximity talks re-launched. We do not think unilateral actions by either party are helpful. And we have made that very clear. And we are hoping to be able to get those talks started, because we think it is only through that effort that we can move on to direct negotiations as the UN Secretary General made reference to.”

Clinton, choosing her words very thoughtfully, stressed that the atmosphere must be right for the proximity talks to be successful.

“I think all of us sitting here share the same goal. We all condemned the announcement [on the 1,600 new Jewish settlements planned for East Jerusalem] and we are expecting both parties to move toward the proximity talks and to help create an atmosphere in which those talks can be constructive,” she concluded.

Media reports suggest that the crisis in relations between the two states is “the worst in 35 years,” with more than one Israeli commentator suggesting that US President Barack Obama is motivated in his actions by “ill feelings” for the Israeli people.

Some 27% of Israelis believe that Barack Obama is anti-Semitic, according to a Haaretz-Dialog poll conducted this week, and reported by Haaretz.

But Clinton and President Obama, as well as the Israeli side, reject such absurd allegations, saying that Israel remains one of America’s “closest allies” and that the “special bond” between the two nations was here to stay.

On a side note, Clinton met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev following the Quartet meeting at the Russian leader's residence outside of Moscow. In addition to the Middle East issue, Clinton and Medvedev are expected to discuss ways to address Iran, which the United States (and Israel) suspect of attempting to acquire nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear energy program, as well as developments in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations.

Finally, Tony Blair, the special representative of the EU, told CNN on Friday that although Israel refuses to reverse its decision to build new homes in largely Arab East Jerusalem, it is offering measures to kick-start the peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged various initiatives to boost Palestinian confidence, as demanded by Washington, in order to get the peace process on track, Blair said. The former British prime minister said those measures include steps to "improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza."

Robert Bridge, RT