Middle East Quartet issues balanced report but first reactions from Israelis and Palestinians lukewarm

Middle East Quartet issues balanced report but first reactions from Israelis and Palestinians lukewarm

After more than four months of deliberations and delays the Middle East Quartet yesterday (1 July) issued its long-awaited report on the situation on the ground and offered recommendations on how to create conditions for a resumption of meaningful negotiations to achieve a two-state solution.

The quartet consists of representatives of Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. EU has been represented by a special representative for the Middle East Peace Process, Fernando Gentilini. An Italian diplomat, he was appointed in April 2015 by the EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) declined to reply to questions from The Brussels Times on the issues at stake and to comment on the report once it was released yesterday. The two sides to the conflict were apparently kept in the dark during the drafting of the report but have tried to influence the text.

Whether the report has been sufficiently anchored in advance to jumpstart the peace process is doubtful. The first reactions from Israel and the Palestinian authority were lukewarm and even negative.

The office of the Israeli Prime-Minister Benyamin Netanyahu did not wait until after the Jewish Shabbat but issued a “response to the report” late on Friday afternoon in which it welcomed those parts of the report which were considered as “pro-Israel” and took issue with other parts of the report.

The Israeli government founds it “troubling that the Quartet appears to have adopted the position that the presence of Jews living in the West Bank somehow prevents reaching a two-state solution. The presence of nearly 1.8 million Arabs in Israel isn’t a barrier to peace; it is a testament to our pluralism and commitment to equality.”

This is hardly a convincing comparison. The Israeli Arabs are citizens who have lived in Israel since the establishment of the state in 1948 and before. The Jews in the West Bank moved there after the six-day war in 1967 when Israel conquered the area.

Israel was supposed to leave the territory in return for peace. Instead it has allowed more Jews to settle in the West Bank, some for ideological reasons and others for economic reasons, and created facts on the ground. The occupation has become permanent and will lead to a one-state which neither Israelis nor Palestinians want. The Quartet report is a warning and wake-up call.

“The monster has risen against its creator”

The documentary film ”The settlers” by Shimon Dotan,  currently screened on Israeli cinemas, makes this clearer than any report. The film describes the history of the settlement project in the West Bank with a focus on the hard-core religious fringe that went there in the messianic belief that settlement leads to redemption.  

Israeli governments from both the left and the right have unwittingly, and some willingly, supported and subsidized a project that is turning against the government, or even working within the government, and that has become an economic and security burden. The film shows how a parallel universe has been created in the West Bank.

Akiva Eldar, a known journalist who has written a well-researched book about the settlements, says in the film: “The government lost control.” The pattern of the past continues - Palestinian terrorist attacks are taken as pretexts to reinforce the settlements and to build more - and this fuels a vicious circle of violence without any end in sight.

On the Palestinians side, a high-ranking representative criticized the report for failing to distinguish between occupiers (Israel) and occupied (Palestinians). Palestine Liberation Organization secretary general, Saeb Erekat, described the report as an attempt to “equalize the responsibilities between a people under occupation and a foreign military occupier.”

If the Quartet intended to circumvent the French initiative on an international conference by encouraging the two sides to engage directly with each-other, they are not likely to find much enthusiasm on the Palestinian side.

“In times of multiple crises, we tend to focus on the most recent one,” Mogherini said in a statement. “But particularly in times like these, we cannot lose sight of the conflict in Israel and Palestine.”

“We need to shake life back into the peace process, and do it as a matter of urgency. Violence is on the rise every single day, with victims of both sides. We risk a new escalation, and the very chance of peace is slipping away. We cannot afford it.”

The report should of course be read in its entirety and no side can cherry-pick those conclusions and recommendations it likes.The Quartet “calls on each side to independently demonstrate, through policies and actions, a genuine commitment to the two-state solution.” 

To that end, “the Quartet emphasizes the importance of both parties complying with their basic commitments under existing agreements in order to promote this two-state reality and lay the groundwork for successful negotiations.”

The report analyses the situation in three areas: violence and incitement, Israeli settlement expansion and denial of Palestinian development, and the Gaza strip and the need for Palestinian governance.

Violence and incitement

As regards violence, the Quartet is very explicit and states that “continuing violence, recent acts of terrorism against Israelis, and incitement to violence are fundamentally incompatible with advancing a peaceful two-state solution and are greatly exacerbating mistrust between the communities.”  

These terrorist attacks, which have been carried out mostly by young, unaffiliated individuals, contribute to the sense among Israelis of living under constant threat, says the report.  

While Israeli extremists who have carried out terrorist acts are condemned by the Israeli government and brought to justice, Palestinians who commit terrorist attacks are often glorified publicly as “heroic martyrs” on social media and by officials.

“Regrettably, however, Palestinian leaders have not consistently and clearly condemned specific terrorist attacks.  And streets, squares and schools have been named after Palestinians who have committed acts of terrorism, “says the report.

Settlement building

Israel is criticized for its settlement policy in the West Bank and here the report brings partly new facts to light that will upset any friend of peace in the country. If the Israeli government tried to exclude this embarrassing information from the report, it obviously failed.

“The continuing policy of settlement construction and expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, designation of land for exclusive Israeli use, and denial of Palestinian development, including the recent high rate of demolitions, is steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution.”  

The report correctly states that “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.”  

In the centre of the conflict lies “area C” that comprises 60 % of the West Bank and includes the majority of agricultural lands, natural resources, and land reserves.  According to the Oslo accords, Israel has still full civil and security authority in the area although the accords foresaw that powers and responsibility would gradually be transferred to the Palestinian authority.

According to the report some 70 percent of Area C has been unilaterally taken for exclusive Israeli use, mostly through inclusion in the boundaries of local and regional settlement councils or designations of "state land."  

There are currently at least 370,000 Israelis living in some 130 settlements in Area C, including at least 85,000 deep in the West Bank which, at least according to the official Israeli position, are not intended for being part of Israel in any future two-state solution.

Nearly all of the remaining 30 percent of Area C, much of which is private Palestinian property, is effectively off limits for Palestinian development because it requires permits from the Israeli military authorities that are almost never granted.

Security in Gaza

As regards the security situation in Gaza, the report is much closer to the Israeli position.

“The illicit arms buildup and militant activity by Hamas, the lack of control of Gaza by the Palestinian Authority, and the dire humanitarian situation, exacerbated by the closures of the crossings, feed instability and ultimately impede efforts to achieve a negotiated solution,” the report says.  

“Preventing the use of territory for attacks against Israel is a key commitment that is essential to long-term peace and security.  In the absence of significant steps by all sides to address the deteriorating conditions, the risk increases of a new escalation of hostilities.”

The report also addresses the lack of Palestinian unity.  “Reuniting Palestinians under a single, democratic and legitimate Palestinian authority on the basis of the PLO platform and Quartet principles remains a priority.  This is critical for the fulfillment of the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.”  

“The constraints of the occupation, the absence of elections, and budgetary pressures contribute to growing public discontent and undermine the popular legitimacy of Palestinian institutions and leadership.”  

Humanitarian needs

Last but not least, the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza must be addressed. “Severe poverty, a crippling unemployment rate, and the chronic underdevelopment of Gaza further feed instability and frustration that could create the conditions for renewed conflict.”  

1.3 million Gazans are in need of sustained humanitarian assistance, including temporary shelter and food.  Most people have electricity less than half of the time, while only five percent of the water is safe for human consumption, says the report and continues: 

Over three-quarters of houses that suffered severe damage have yet to be repaired, however, in part because only 40 percent of the donor funds pledged for Gaza in Cairo in 2014 have actually been delivered – a failure of the international community.

The way forward

`What needs be done in the short term? Without going into detail or prejudging the future solution, which is up to the two parties to negotiate and agree on, the Quartet issued nine overall recommendations for reversing the current vicious circle before it is too late and addressing the issues in each of the three areas it analyzed.

Measures in these areas could no doubt, besides solving burning issues that cannot wait, contribute to creating a climate of confidence building and trust between the parties, something which is totally absent for the moment. From this point, the first reaction by Israel does not bode well.

The Israeli government has just signed an agreement with Turkey to end the six-year dispute after the Mavi Marmara incident and to resume diplomatic relations. Even this relatively small reconciliation step with a strategic partner in the region was opposed by the public opinion in Israel, coalition partners in the government and the opposition leader Isaac Herzog.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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