America’s attempted Quartet sophistry

As more information seeps out from the Quartet principals meeting held in Washington on July 11, it becomes harder not to reach the conclusion that American policy on Israel-Palestine is now being driven almost exclusively by a desire to prevent any possible U.N. vote on the matter in the Autumn. Reading the draft text proposed ...

By , the president of the U.S./Middle East Project and a former Israeli negotiator.
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

As more information seeps out from the Quartet principals meeting held in Washington on July 11, it becomes harder not to reach the conclusion that American policy on Israel-Palestine is now being driven almost exclusively by a desire to prevent any possible U.N. vote on the matter in the Autumn. Reading the draft text proposed as a Quartet statement by the U.S. (the text is not yet public, but the authenticity of the draft described here has been reliably confirmed) and rejected by the EU, Russia, and the U.N. Secretary General entrenches that conclusion — and worse, that the U.S. was attempting to pull something of a diplomatic fast one on the senior Quartet officials assembled. But more on that later.

First, a veritable minefield of myths that have sprung up around a possible Palestine vote at the U.N. should be debunked.

No a U.N. vote will not in practical terms deliver a sovereign Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal and de-occupation. Nor will Israelis instantly be hauled in front of various international legal bodies as a consequence of a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution. Several other steps would have to take place subsequent to a U.N. vote for either of those things to happen and those do not flow seamlessly, one from the other.

No the U.N. Security Council or General Assembly is not an inappropriate venue for discussing or passing resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor does doing so contravene previous agreements signed between the parties. It is hard to imagine a more relevant or obvious matter for the U.N. to act on. One does not have to get very far in reading the charter of the U.N. to understand that U.N. member states who are signatories to that charter would be derelict in their duties if they refused to act on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Article 1 of that charter is about maintaining international peace and security; Article 2 is about the right of peoples to self-determination; and the list goes on. More specifically, when it comes to Israel-Palestine, the idea of partition to two states is a product of the U.N. (more specifically Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question), enshrined in UNGA Resolution 181, and it was U.N. recognition that crucially established the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The existing panoply of Israeli-Palestinian agreements from the past two decades say nothing about barring any action at the U.N. and do not even explicitly refer to Palestinian statehood, so that any recognition of a Palestinian state at the U.N. cannot be in contravention of those agreements.

While Netanyahu’s amen corner may point to a clause in the Oslo agreements setting out that "neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of permanent status negotiations," they tend to conveniently forget about this when it comes, for instance, to the daily Israeli acts contravening this same clause, notably relentless settlement expansion. So the idea that a U.N. resolution — even one recognizing Palestine — is inadmissible given existing signed commitments, is no more than an Israeli diplomatic sleight of hand parroted by American officials and assorted hangers on. Thankfully, there are still international actors with a somewhat more grounded understanding of the Oslo process and international legality. In fact, none other than the initiators of the Oslo process, the Norwegians themselves. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre included the following in a statement issued earlier this week, subsequent to his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:

It is Norway’s view, however, that it is legitimate and not in contradiction with a process of negotiation, to turn to the U.N. to promote a common approach on the part of the international community and respect for the international rule of law. In light of the continuing deadlock in the negotiations, the Palestinians cannot be denied the right to approach the U.N.

No the Palestinians cannot realistically circumvent an American veto and become a member state of the U.N. — and they know this. The theoretical option of pursuing a two-thirds majority at the General Assembly and then using the "Uniting for Peace" framework to get around the Security Council, and therefore the American veto, is not something the Palestinians will pursue. At most, they will pursue a membership application in order to set down a marker for the future, maintain a degree of drama and attention surrounding the vote, and to heighten American discomfort at its inability to pursue a coherent or credible Israel-Palestine policy.

Finally, the subtext of going to the U.N. is not about creating conditions for a new round of violence and a third intifada — something the current Palestinian leadership has no interest in and are themselves threatened by. The likelihood or otherwise of violent instability in the Occupied Territories is influenced by a number of variables, among them economic conditions and Israel’s possible withholding of Palestinian tax revenues, Palestinian ability to sustain non-violent approaches to mobilization, the intensity of Israeli provocations, and the extent of Palestinian frustration. The latter could be more fueled by a Palestinian retreat from U.N. action and a return to meaningless negotiations or by a failure at the U.N. to overwhelmingly endorse Palestinian rights than by a successful, symbolic win at the U.N., even if that does not translate the morning after into new freedoms on the ground.

Having said all of this, there are ways in which a U.N. resolution could be constructive and help achieve progress toward a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis (of course these prospects will partly depend on the exact wording and nature of any specific resolution). For instance, a U.N. resolution clarifying that a two-state solution would be on the 1967 lines (allowing for modifications to that line only on the basis of agreed, equal, and minor land exchanges) with Jerusalem serving as the capital of both states, could help ground any future negotiations in more realistic terms, establishing that the contours of a two-state arrangement cannot be endlessly flexible while also undermining the time-wasting and obfuscatory special pleading that tends to characterize Israeli negotiation tactics.

At the same time, such a resolution would powerfully entrench the two-state solution, guaranteeing a future for both Israel and a Palestinian state. That is the main reason that those preferring a one-state outcome — from both the more absolutist Palestinian rights camp and from the Greater Israel settler camp — are opposed to this U.N. move. This should provide a reason for the pro-democracy wing of the pro-Israel camp to attempt to work constructively in this U.N. space. Yet most of the American Jewish establishment groups who by self-definition claim to support a democratic Israel seem more busy taking a victory lap every time another Eastern European or Pacific Island state declares itself against the U.N. vote.

In Israeli domestic political terms a strongly endorsed U.N. resolution would administer a kick to the groin of the peace rejectionist policies pursued by the current Netanyahu-Lieberman government. It is hard to see how peace is advanced by rewarding those rejectionist policies, whether at the U.N. or in the constructing of Quartet statement language. For the Palestinians, a U.N. resolution that upgrades their U.N. status to non-member state (similar to the Vatican status), would pave the way to membership in additional institutions including very likely the ability to take cases to the International Criminal Court (ICC). While the asymmetry of Israeli-Palestinian realities and therefore the logic of the Palestinians gaining leverage by utilizing non-violent diplomatic tools of this nature is a powerful one, this is not something that the Palestinian leadership is claiming it will pursue subsequent to any U.N. vote.

Given both the legitimacy of the U.N. as a venue for advancing Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution and this non-exhaustive list of potential benefits that could be derived from such a move, why is it that the U.S. (and in many ways Europe) are so uncomfortable about a U.N. vote and working so hard to prevent it from occurring?

The respective reasons for American and European opposition are not exactly the same. Both share a preference to be on the same page when it comes to this issue and it is unlikely that would happen should it come to a U.N. vote. When the Security Council voted on a settlements resolution in February, the EU states supported the resolution while the U.S. was alone in opposing and vetoing it. The U.S. and Europe also share a concern that the U.N. route would signal the beginning of them losing control of this issue (a worry that is more acute for the U.S.). And even if the Palestinians are not planning to go to the ICC or to try to sanction Israel in various ways subsequent to a U.N. vote, that might be the future trajectory for this conflict and a U.N. vote might ultimately encourage that, which is likely to present a series of difficult decisions down the road (in this case especially for the Europeans).

The main explanation for U.S. opposition to any U.N. consideration of a Palestine resolution would appear to be rooted in the domestic politics of this issue. With re-election coming up (isn’t it always) the president would be unenthusiastic about having to deal with the background noise criticism that many of the so-called pro-Israel lobbying groups would undoubtedly generate in the wake of any U.N. vote. Even a U.S. veto in the Security Council or "no" vote in the General Assembly would not shield the president from being attacked. He will be blamed for encouraging the Palestinians to try this path by stating in his speech last year to the UNGA that "when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine." The president is also likely to be held accountable for failing to sufficiently persuade or pressure any state with whom American maintains bilateral relations and that votes with the Palestinians. Yes, it is ridiculous.

Republican congressional leaders have threatened to withhold America’s UN payments if such a vote goes ahead, giving the president another horse-trading headache in the already difficult act of managing congressional relations. What’s more, members of Congress from both parties are threatening to de-fund all U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority if the Palestinians push a U.N. vote. This matters because administration officials understand that de-funding might not only encourage escalation on the ground, but it also removes an important lever of U.S. influence with the Palestinians for managing the conflict in ways that are convenient to Israel. A classically ironic own goal for the pro-Israel community, this one. There is also the small matter of America’s own national interests and credibility at the U.N., in the Middle East, and in the broader global community. If there is a U.N. vote and domestic politics dictates a US "no" vote, then while no direct causal line can be drawn between that vote and increased extremist recruitment, terror, and threats against the U.S.,  the relationship between those factors is nonetheless one that American leaders and especially military leaders are all too aware of.

The distinctly European reasons for also preferring that a U.N. move be avoided mainly revolve around the difficulty that exists in producing a common European position and in the absence of such a position the inability to bring leverage to bear and the exposing of divisions within Europe.

Given the shared point of departure on the desirability of producing an alternative to the Palestinian push at the UN it might seem somewhat surprising that the U.S., Europe, and the rest of the Quartet failed to produce a common statement at last week’s high level meeting. Surprising, that is, until one considers what was on offer from the U.S. — which is where the American sophistry comes in. The U.S. presented to its Quartet "partners" a suggested one page text that looked rather like an exercise in cherry picking Obama’s recent speeches by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office (given the recent traffic between Jerusalem and Washington and the end product it is reasonable to speculate that that is precisely what happened). The American pitch went something like the following: the proposed text is a reflection of the President’s speech, the Quartet had encouraged the President to give such a speech, the President had taken some political heat for the speech, the Quartet had even endorsed the speech (which it did in a May 20 statement), therefore the Quartet should now stand united behind the American draft, demonstrate to the Palestinians that they have no alternative but to accept the Quartet position, resume negotiations, and drop the U.N. idea. The text was quite clearly pre-cooked with the Israeli leadership, so no problem of acceptance from Israel.

Except that the U.S. text was not a faithful rendition of what the Quartet had endorsed — namely, the May 19 State Department speech of the president — but rather a hodgepodge of language from that speech, from the May 22 speech at the AIPAC conference, and of elements never before endorsed by the Quartet and even contradicting the existing positions of the EU and others. Hence the stalemate — and not altogether a shock given Jerusalem’s apparent co-authorship of the text.

So here are the details. To recap: President Obama’s May 19 speech spent 1,040 words addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama described the conflict, touched on Israeli and Palestinian aspirations, and made a case for a solution being more urgent than ever in the context of the Arab awakening. The President then made news when, in calling for a resumption of negotiations, he stated that "the basis of those negotiations is clear," and then spent 170 words providing the parameters of a borders and security first approach to achieving two-states (his reference of the 1967 lines in particular drew attention). He closed out this part of the speech by saying "these principles provide a foundation for negotiations." The U.S. draft proposal presented to the Quartet did include the President’s language from the May 19 speech, but it also included a whole lot more, all of it skewing, extremely uni-directionally, in Israel’s favor. To the simple May 19 border language of "based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps," the U.S. added the following from the May 22 speech:

The parties themselves will negotiate a border between Israel and Palestine that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967, to take account of changes that have taken place over the last 44 years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.

This is essentially America asking the Quartet to endorse illegal Israeli settlement activity that has taken place since 1967 (and in phrasing this as "the parties themselves will negotiate a border…" the U.S. is deviating from its own previous policy of not dictating to the parties). Compare that to the official position of the European Union: "The European Union will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties."

Remember, the Quartet issued a statement endorsing the president’s May 19 speech; it has never endorsed the May 22 speech.

The U.S. text also included language about Israel that was spoken on both May 19 and May 22 but was not part of the principles or foundations for negotiations set out on May 19 (and it is these principles that the Quartet endorsed). As follows:

A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people.

Again, this is terminology that neither the EU nor the Quartet has endorsed in the past. While it may be derived from previous U.N. resolutions (UNGA 181) it is problematic in several respects. It comes at a time when the nationalist chauvinism of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government is creating in practice an ever less democratic rendition of Jewish statehood. And America’s text actually fails to even mention the need for Israel to be a democracy or to respect the equal rights of all citizens (maybe the American drafters did understand more than appears at first glance). It is being claimed by Israel, and for understandable reasons, to be a definitive position on the Palestinian refugee issue, and it meets a key Netanyahu demand without anything even resembling a reciprocal nod to Palestinian rights.

The U.S. wanted the Quartet to agree that:

[N]or can the two-state solution be achieved through action in the United Nations.

Again, this was not in the principles of negotiations May 19 language and is closer to the May 22 text and is an Israeli position…and a bit of a stretch to ask everyone else, including the UN Secretary General, to join America in de-legitimizing the idea of acting through the United Nations.

Another proposed sentence would have the Quartet saying:

No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction.

Taken from the AIPAC speech, and while ostensibly reasonable, this is not something that has been applied in other conflict situations or that does anything other than curry favor with Jerusalem. It was America’s way of coming out firmly against Palestinian national reconciliation and conceding to Israel’s argument that even if the Palestinians accept these principles for negotiations, Israel would still not be expected to enter talks until the unity deal was undone. One Quartet member, Russia, actually hosted a joint Hamas, Fatah, and other factions delegation in Moscow to encourage the reconciliation deal, while the EU position is to call "on all Palestinians to promote reconciliation behind President Mahmoud Abbas."

To top it all off, nowhere in the proposed statement was there a mention of settlement activity and the need for it to be stopped (other than retroactively legitimizing it as mentioned above). Europe’s position on settlements is clear:

[They are] illegal under international law…and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible. The [European] Council urges the government of Israel to immediately end all settlement activities, in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank and including natural growth, and to dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001.

Finally, the U.S. attempted to introduce a new procedural construct with the following sentence:

The Quartet calls on the parties to return to direct negotiations, beginning with preparatory work to maximize their chances of success.

It reads like an attempt to ensure that September could be navigated safely by not even starting the negotiations before then — instead focusing on this new "preparatory work". Under the conditions embodied in the U.S. text, the only preparatory work that one can imagine might lead to success would be a Hogwart’s crash course in Wizardry (although American officials no doubt have different ideas and are proposing the kind of minimalist Israeli confidence-building measures that have made such a massive contribution to peace in the last decade!).

With the American text having been rejected, what next? What are the scenarios for between now and September?

There are three basic options for the U.S. and the Quartet, acting in tandem or separately. First, the U.S. might yet convince the other Quartet members to accept their proposed text or something close enough to it to still have Netanyahu chortling and Abbas turning out the lights at the Muqata. This is the thrust of current U.S. diplomatic efforts. If that succeeds, and the premise is correct that faced with a unified Quartet position the Palestinians will fold and abandon any U.N. efforts, then of course September is successfully avoided — but at what cost. Negotiations, even if they begin, are unlikely to last, let alone be fruitful, and the current Palestinian leadership and the entire negotiations approach will be even further emaciated and exposed as a folly. Paradoxically, the Palestinian embrace of a new more assertive and proactive strategy that America so fears may even be accelerated if the Quartet ploy carries the day.

A second possibility is that the Europeans lead an effort to craft a Security Council product at the U.N. This could be done with Palestinian assent, as a way of establishing meaningful parameters of a two-state solution, it might avoid messy textual negotiations at the UNGA, and maintain a unified European position. The only problem with this option is that the U.S. will almost certainly veto anything deemed unacceptable by Jerusalem — and Jerusalem’s bar for acceptability has all the moderation of a Voldemort.

The third scenario is for a General Assembly resolution, which the U.S. can oppose but not of course veto. For the Palestinians the focus for such a resolution would likely be the upgrading of their current status to what was described earlier as something similar to that of the Vatican: an observer or non-member state. The battleground in this context would be the exact language of the resolution and the votes of European and some other states.

Neither Israel nor America will be excluded from, or be bystanders to, developments over the coming weeks. Nevertheless, the degree of Israeli intransigence (and refusal to play even make believe peaceniks) and the severity of America’s allergy to action at the U.N. will greatly restrict and marginalize both, if and when a September move draws closer. That will place a premium on whether the Palestinians can come up with something approaching an effective strategy and whether Europe can intervene in a consensual and meaningful fashion.

With the prospects for any improvement on the Israel-Palestine situation so dire, and with American stewardship of the peace process so thoroughly compromised, that represents a slim yet worthwhile gamble. Once the American election dust settles, the realization in the meantime of some Palestinian and European punctuation points of progress might even generate more conducive conditions in the future for America to re-engage in a constructive way. Not that holding one’s breath while waiting for that eventuality is recommended.  

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is an editor of the Middle East Channel. 

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

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