Quartet: Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal ‘Increasingly Remote’

A group of major diplomatic powers said Israeli settlements and Palestinian violence were “steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution.”

A protestor flashes the "V" for victory sign near barbed wire during a demonstration on November 01, 2010 calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip.  AFP PHOTO/ SAID KHATIB (Photo credit should read SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)
A protestor flashes the "V" for victory sign near barbed wire during a demonstration on November 01, 2010 calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. AFP PHOTO/ SAID KHATIB (Photo credit should read SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)

A big-power diplomatic coalition monitoring Middle East peace efforts called on Israel to halt its expansion of settlements, warning that the policy, combined with persistent Palestinian terrorist attacks, is “severely undermining hopes for peace” between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Middle East Quartet, which includes representatives from the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union, wrote in an eight-page report that it “remains seriously concerned” that the status quo will make the prospect of establishing a Palestinian state “increasingly remote.” It called on both sides to “de-escalate tensions” and “take all necessary steps to prevent violence.”

The report’s release comes at a time of deep international pessimism over the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Several years of shuttle diplomacy by the Obama administration have failed to resolve the decades-long conflict. Diplomatic efforts by France and New Zealand to harness the influence of the Security Council in prodding the parties into restarting stalled talks have encountered resistance from Israel, the United States, and the Palestinians. The Palestinians, meanwhile, failed to secure enough votes in December 2014 for the passage of a resolution that would have required Israel to seal a Middle East peace deal within a one-year timetable.

During the past year, U.S. officials, frustrated by what they see as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s retreat from his prior commitment to a two-state solution, have repeatedly floated the idea of introducing a resolution in the U.N. Security Council aimed at coaxing Israel into pursuing a deal. But they have repeatedly backed down from the idea. And senior U.N.-based diplomats say it remains highly unlikely Washington will take up any new initiatives at the U.N. before the U.S. presidential election. A senior State Department official, Reuters reported, said Friday that the United States is “open to having the Security Council welcome the report, but that’s all at this point. We’re not looking for serious, substantive, U.N. Security Council action on this report.”

The report spelled out three major threats to the peace process: the ongoing violence, including a wave of Palestinian knife attacks against Israeli civilians; Israel’s settlement expansion; and the ongoing militancy of Hamas, along with the steady growth of its weapons arsenal. Despite a 2014 cease-fire, Hamas continued in Gaza to build tunnels, smuggle in weapons, and produce missiles that are still being launched at Israel, the report found.

“Continuing violence, terrorist attacks against civilians, and incitement to violence are greatly exacerbating mistrust,” the report stated. “The continuing policy of settlement construction and expansion, designation of land for exclusive Israeli use, and denial of Palestinian development is steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution.”

The report also said the “illicit arms buildup and militant activity, continuing absence of Palestinian unity, and dire humanitarian situation in Gaza” were feeding instability and hindering efforts toward a deal.

In a statement, Netanyahu welcomed the portions of the report that recognized the “centrality of Palestinian incitement and violence to the perpetuation of the conflict.” But Netanyahu faulted the Quartet report’s conclusion on settlements, saying it “perpetuates the myth that Israeli construction in the West Bank is an obstacle to peace. When Israel froze settlements, it did not get peace.”

The Palestinians also criticized what they say is the Quartet’s effort to draw equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian conduct. “It does not meet our expectations as a nation living under a foreign colonial military occupation,” Palestine Liberation Organization General Secretary Saeb Erekat said in response to the report, according to the Washington Post. The Quartet, he added, “attempts to equalize the responsibilities between a people under occupation and a foreign military occupier.”

The report comes at a violent time. Since October 2015, the report found Palestinians have carried out more than 250 stabbing, shooting, and bombing attacks against Israelis, resulting in the deaths of at least 30 Israelis. “In the most intense period, there were three to four attacks per day,” the report found, adding that the perpetrators were mostly “young unaffiliated individuals.”

During the same period, 140 Palestinians who either perpetrated such attacks or were suspected of having done so were killed. The Israeli security forces killed another 60 Palestinians during crackdowns on protests and in other military operations. The report found violence has subsided “significantly” during 2016 largely as a result of stepped-up enforcement operations by the Palestinian Authority, which has “successfully thwarted attacks, seized weapons, and arrested suspected extremists.” But recent terrorist attacks, including a bus bombing in Jerusalem in April and the shooting deaths of four Israelis at a Tel Aviv cafe in June, highlighted the ongoing bloodshed. And on Thursday, a 13-year-old American-Israeli girl, Hallel Yaffa Ariel, was stabbed to death in her sleep by a Palestinian teenager in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba.

Israel has responded to the attacks by expanding administrative detentions and demolishing the homes of suspected terrorists. Even some senior Israeli officials have expressed concern about the excessive use of force in such operations. But the Quartet focused particular attention on Israel’s policy of expanding settlements.

Since the Oslo peace process began in 1993, the population of Israeli settlements has more than doubled, with more than 570,000 settlers, including at least 85,000 who live deep inside the West Bank. “This raises legitimate questions about Israel’s long-term intentions, which are compounded by the statements of some Israeli ministers that there should never be a Palestinian state,” the report found. The Quartet report called on Israel to “cease” its settlement policy and accelerate ongoing restrictions to and from Gaza.

The Quartet expressed alarm at ongoing attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, including a 2015 arson attack that killed three and the burning death of a Palestinian boy in 2014. It noted, though, that the number of settler attacks has declined over the past three years.

It also faulted Hamas for publicly glorifying terrorists as “heroic martyrs.”

“Hamas and other radical factions are responsible for the most explicit and widespread forms of incitement,” the report stated. “These groups use media outlets to glorify terrorism and openly call for violence against Jews, including instructing on how to carry out stabbings.” Even officials from the more moderate Fatah faction, which is led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, have “publicly supported attacks and their perpetrators.”

Photo credit: SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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