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The Quartet meeting that never happened

The Quartet meeting that never happened

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Berlin today and was supposed to meet with the other representatives of the Middle East Quartet: Russia, the U.N., and the EU. But the meeting was cancelled after the Obama administration successfully scuttled a European plan to issue a statement that included specifics of a final agreement for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

German officials said the meeting was cancelled due to "scheduling difficulties," but U.S. and Israel officials told The Cable that the meeting was scuttled over disagreements regarding the EU draft statement, which would have set terms on matters such as borders, security, and settlements.

"A regularly scheduled quartet meeting got hijacked by the Europeans who are getting increasing frustrated and want to tackle final status issues," said former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, now with the Wilson Center. "If the U.S. wants to get involved, they will do a lone ranger on this one. We will decide what constitutes our policy positions."

The Obama administration dispatched National Security Council Senior Director David Hale to the Middle East last week to deal with the issue, multiple officials confirmed. He met with both Palestinian and Israel leaders, as well as a representative of each of the Quartet members.

For the Obama administration, Hale’s effort was a success on two counts. The White House was able to avoid another domestic political problem by acting swiftly to prevent an uproar by pro-Israel community in Washington; and Obama was able to bide time in advance of a major speech on the Middle East he is preparing to make in the coming weeks.

"We’re always open to new ideas and new approaches. But fundamentally, we know what needs to be done, which is to get the parties together, to get them talking about these core issues so that they can resolve them in a fashion that’s sustainable and appropriate to both sides," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Thursday.

Around Capitol Hill, some pro-Israel offices were already warning the State Department that they should not repeat their approach from February, when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice initially offered to endorse a U.N. Security Council presidential statement criticizing Israeli settlement activity, causing domestic political uproar. That statement never came to a vote and the administration ultimately vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution criticizing Israel.

"This is a positive change, because at the last go around, the administration was less clear with America’s intent to veto the anti-Israel resolution," said former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, now a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute. "They’ve come to a place where there’s a recognition that they need to be cautious about the process. And by acting as part of the part of the Quartet, they’ve done a smart thing. Whether it represents a shift of policy in the long term, it’s too early to tell."

The White House is now busily working out the details of its new approach to advancing the dormant Middle East Peace process. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) spilled the beans at the Brookings U.S. Islamic Forum in Washington on Tuesday, when he said that President Barack Obama will offer a new template to advance the peace process ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu‘s trip to Washington in May to attend the annual AIPAC conference.

Kerry also criticized the administration’s entire strategy for Middle East peace up to now. "I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable," he said.

Block called Kerry’s rebuke of the administration’s previous policy, "an unusual moment of honesty in Washington."

Clinton confirmed on Tuesday night that Obama will make a major speech on the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in her remarks to the same Brookings forum. The Israel section of Clinton’s speech was not in the version mailed to reporters earlier in the day, suggesting she added it in response to Kerry’s remarks.

Clinton said that the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was "no more sustainable than the political systems that have crumbled in recent months."

Analysts and policymakers are looking to the early fall as a deadline for some progress on the Middle East peace process. September was the original deadline the administration gave for a final settlement framework agreement and that’s when the Palestinians plan to push for a vote at the U.N. General Assembly recognizing them as an independent state.

But Miller said progress before then isn’t likely for three reasons: The Israeli government is not in a position to make the concessions needed to restart direct talks; the Obama administration has no real strategy for getting back to direct talks; and the Palestinian government is divided into two opposing camps.

"You put all these things together and you have a pretty bleak picture."

Obama has had on his desk for months now a set of parameters he could wrap into a speech that would break new ground to guide negotiations, Miller said, but the president hasn’t wanted to get ahead of the parties. The speech could be risky for Obama if he fails to chart a clear path forward — or if that path isn’t followed by the Israelis or Palestinians.

"When you don’t have a policy or you have a bad policy, the pressure grows to give a speech. But a speech that doesn’t have legs could be a real liability," he said.