Should We Welcome, Fear Or Ignore The Quartet?

The Quartet was a good idea that initially aimed to expand the circle of major parties that lent their weight to achieving a negotiated peace. That never happened for several reasons.

Watch out, the Quartet is waking up and threatens to make a move. We should have mixed feelings about the news that the “Quartet” group of powers that aims to shepherd Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to a successful peace accord will convene soon to seek to revive diplomatic efforts that have been stalled for six months.

I say “watch out” because the Quartet, since its establishment 12 years ago, has not lived up to its expectations in promoting Palestinian-Israeli negotiations under the umbrella of its four members — the United States, Russia, United Nations and European Community. Years of negotiations since the Quartet was formed in 2002 have generated much heat, some hope, and mostly unfulfilled expectations, but no breakthrough.

Maybe that was the aim and the Quartet has indeed achieved its main aim. Some people more sinister than myself argue that the Quartet’s main role was to provide an international cover for the United States’ dominance of the peace negotiations and making sure they respond first and foremost to Israeli concerns.

A United Nations announcement that Quartet states diplomats would meet in Brussels Jan. 26 coincided with the UN Security Council’s first formal meeting on the Middle East this year. At that session a senior UN official offered a bleak assessment of the current hostility and mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians who are “engaged in a downward spiral of actions and counteractions.”

The Quartet was a good idea that initially aimed to expand the circle of major parties that lent their weight to achieving a negotiated peace; it allowed both principals to feel that they were not on their own in the negotiations arena, but rather felt secure that Quartet members would ensure a level playing field, or negotiating table. That never happened, for several reasons.

The United States dominated the Quartet’s actions and perpetuated the reality that bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations took place according to priorities and red lines established primarily by Israel. The Palestinians did not harness the considerable support they enjoy around the world and among the Quartet member states or organizations, and the European Union and Russia proved fickle in their Mideast peace-making actions. The Quartet’s special envoy to the Arab-Israeli peace process, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, was also a failure who seemed to spend more time making money for himself in consulting and speech-making than in engaging in the needed even-handed diplomatic mediation.

Blair once again showed his incompetence and misreading of realities on the ground in the Middle East this week, when he addressed a group of 300 Republican members of Congress and staffers. His remarks on radical Islamists, Western responses to them, the US- and UK-led war against Iraq, and other issues revealed a man whose penchant to repeat clichés and simplistic exhortations about Islam and Muslims reflected his wider inability to grasp the realities and causes of political sentiments in the Middle East.

An example of his poor analysis is the assertion that the root of several factors that contributed to radical Islam is a struggle within Islam about the nature of the faith and its relationship with other religious communities. More accurate is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims have no problems with the nature of Islam or its relations with others, but small pockets of cult-like extremists and criminals carry out actions, including terror attacks; these generate global responses that often alienate that massive majority of Muslims who are neither confrontational nor confused about their faith and their relations with non-Muslims.

Guardian newspaper report of the sessions said that “he reportedly argued that the US and UK had learned that if you topple dictators, you release other forces that have to be dealt with. However, the Arab Spring demonstrated that many of those dictatorships would be swept away in any event.”

This would appear to be a damning criticism of US and UK actions in Iraq especially that helped create an environment that provided radical Islamists the space to develop into movements that now threaten us all to some extent. But Blair would never admit this, and his problem of not coming to terms with Middle Eastern realities was one reason for the failure of the Quartet.

Despite these weaknesses, the idea of a Quartet mechanism remains valid, because American-dominated diplomacy in the Palestinian-Israeli arena, however vigorous it has been in the last 20 years, has failed to achieve a peace agreement that responds to the legitimate rights and needs of both sides. An expanded diplomatic umbrella that drives negotiations on the basis of international legitimacy and the rule of law, rather than Israeli-American-dominated power imbalances on the ground, would be a positive contribution — indeed, a lifesaver — for the failed and moribund peace process.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global