In laying the foundations for the 1991 peace conference in Madrid US Secretary of State James Baker was anxious to secure Washington’s role as primary sponsor of the Arab- Israeli peace process. He supervised all the arrangement for the conference, from the venue and guest lists to the agenda and gave various, if contradictory, assurances to the parties he wanted to invite. Above all, he wanted to ensure that the conference was international only in name. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Madrid was to be the forum in which Washington asserted itself as the only power capable of shaping the future of the Middle East.
Some — myself included — never expected much good to come from that conference. How could the US act as mediator, let alone sole mediator, when its unqualified support for Israel had made it, to all intents and purposes, one of the parties to the conflict? Future developments proved the skeptics right, and increasingly calls were heard to balance the one-sided mediation by allowing other international parties a larger role in the settlement process. One recently aired suggestion has been to hold a second Madrid conference based on the principle of effective plurality.
Italy, Greece and Spain, among other European nations, supported the proposal and lobbied for it. Last summer Washington seemed to favour the idea, at least in principle, largely because it would help the Bush administration fill the vacuum created by its hands-off policy towards the peace process. Following the shock of 11 September, though, the idea of a Madrid II faded into the background as the European governments that promoted the proposal scrambled to come to terms with the state of emergency Washington had declared against international terrorism.
And then the idea of a conference was mooted again, though not in the same way as before. Proposals ranged from a limited regional conference to an expanded and modified Madrid II. If vague and, sometimes, of spurious intent the proposals all emanated from the conviction that the Madrid formula and its Oslo offshoots were unworkable, that outside mediation was vital and, more significantly, that the US was central to any mediating efforts.
Yet as long as Washington’s concept of its mediating role remains unaltered, as long as Washington continues to heat up or cool down the peace process at its own or at Israel’s whim, its centrality obviates any possible departure from the Madrid I formula. This creates a conundrum, for any mediating mechanism that does not cater to Washington’s approach is doomed to failure. The Quartet is no exception.
The US, Russia, the EU and the UN descended upon the settlement process without any legitimate authority, without any guiding set of principles or independent frame of reference. Since its non-American members acknowledge America’s primacy in mediations, Washington is able to steer this mechanism in whichever direction it pleases. Indeed, it appears that the sole purpose of the Quartet is as a front for Washington’s control of the peace process.
According to Russia’s foreign minister the Americans drafted 90 per cent of the closing statement of the Quartet’s last meeting in July. That statement, according to the Palestinian’s chief negotiator Saeb Ereikat, was “devoid of clarity on the positions towards the dimensions of the Palestinian cause” and “lacked the necessary agenda for ending the Israeli occupation of PA areas, lifting the blockade and ending the Israeli closure”.
The statement contained nothing that does not conform with Washington’s previously declared policy on Palestine. Nor can any comfort be found in reports of differences between Washington and its three partners over the fate of Arafat. Such differences, as the 90 per cent US-drafted statement shows, count for little. Washington, apparently, believes that widening the mediating base is sufficient both to dispel Palestinian and Arab misgivings and “globalise” its concept of a settlement which, it will be able to claim, is no longer a purely American-made product.
Tel Aviv perceives the real purpose of the Quartet, which is why it has not voiced its usual opposition to the internationalisation of the peace process. The Quartet cannot impose a vision for a settlement that does not reflect Washington’s will, which increasingly appears to have been cloned in Tel Aviv. In addition it will take time before the Quartet, if it lasts, comes up with a detailed project for a settlement, allowing Israel to continue the fait accompli policy at which it excels, creating new realities on the ground in occupied Palestine.
Whatever misgivings they have, the Palestinians and the Arabs are not in a position to oppose the Quartet outright. The most they can hope to do is to attempt to urge the Quartet to a position that, at best, adopts international resolutions on Palestine as the framework for a settlement. Unfortunately, the current situation does not inspire optimism. Already the Quartet has imposed a form of mandate over the PA. At the beginning of August it presented the PA with a detailed document on the reforms (“reforms” being the catchword for Israeli-American dictates regarding the role of Palestinian security in suppressing Palestinian resistance forces) it must make. A subcommittee created to oversee the implementation of these reforms will submit its findings and recommendations to the Quartet which, depending on how favourable the reports are, will issue its directives to the PA’s donor nations. Naturally, Israel will be kept fully informed.
Ironically the Palestinians, aware that the realisation of their political and legal rights required effective international support, have long sought to internationalise their cause. This remains urgently the case, which is why the Palestinians have continued to seek a conference that is international in more than name.
The Palestinians can push for effective internationalisation only by working with Arab and Islamic countries, and other nations that support their rights, towards compelling the Quartet to adopt the provisions of international legitimacy as a framework for a settlement. Without such a framework the Quartet will remain hostage to US-Israeli whims. Simultaneously, the Palestinians and Arabs must assert that the Quartet is no substitute for a truly international conference in which the principles of international legitimacy and the effective participation of third parties are accorded full value.