The international Quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia on Middle East peace and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) seem set on an agenda that perceives September 2011 as an historical political watershed deadline. Among the partners to the Quartet – sponsored Palestinian – Israeli “peace process,” practically deadlocked since the collapse of the US, Palestinian and Israeli trilateral summit in Camp David in 2000, only the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu seems adamant to set a completely different agenda that renders any endeavor by the Quartet to revive the process a non – starter, thus dooming the September deadline beforehand as another missed opportunity for peace making.
Denying they are containment measures aimed at political survival to avert potential Palestinian simulation in the aftermath of the regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia, the PLO is bracing for what it declares as indeed “the” watershed deadline in September 2011 that would make or break its decision to resume as a partner to the “peace process.” The PLO is reshuffling its negotiations department as well as the cabinet of the self-ruled Palestinian Authority (PA) and has called for presidential, legislative and local elections by next September to empower itself with electoral legitimacy ahead of that deadline, encouraged by what the Quartet perceives as a “really important moment of opportunity,” in the words of the Quartet’s representative the former UK prime minister Tony Blair, which is an “opportunity” created by the Arab popular uprisings that so far have swept to the dustbin of history the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, both considered for decades major pillars of the Middle East “peace process.”
Blair’s “moment of opportunity” (Sky News on Feb. 14) was voiced also the next day by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who told the London School of Economics that, “Time is a factor, and urgent progress in the Palestinian-Israeli settlement is necessary.” On the same day while on a visit in Israel and the PA, the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, citing the “significant changes in Tunisia and of course in Egypt,” said “there is an opportunity for us to try and engage better and more quickly on resolving the issue” of the peace process. On Feb. 12 the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, citing the “one of the good things that might come from the events in Egypt and Tunisia,” joined the “peace opportunity” choir to urge that “it is vital now to take this (the peace process) forward” because “in a few years time a two – state solution will be much, much more difficult to achieve.” Citing the same “changes,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the annual dinner of the Jewish organizations (CRIF) in Paris on Feb. 9 that “it is urgent to revive direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.” Three days earlier, on Feb. 6, even the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, addressing the 11th annual Herzliya security conference and similarly citing the regional “dramatic events of the recent period” which make it “necessary for us to take the Israeli – Palestinian conflict off the regional agenda,” urged Netanyahu that it is a “must” Israel does “this as soon as possible.” It was also noteworthy that the secretary-general of the NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, found it necessary to contradict the official Israeli statements that the recent change in Egypt and Tunisia proves that Arab – Israeli conflict is NOT the source of instability in the Middle East. “The lack of a solution to the Israel – Palestinian conflict continues to undermine the stability of the region,” he told the Herzliya security conference.
To “do this,” it seems that all those who see in the collapse of the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt a “moment of opportunity” have set a timetable throughout the September deadline. In addition to the PLO’s measures, the UN Secretary General, in a press conference on Feb. 8, reminded that the Quartet will meet at the ministerial level in mid – March and decided at its latest meeting in Munich earlier this month “to step up its search for comprehensive Middle East peace,” adding the Quartet “expects to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials separately in Brussels at the beginning of March.” Meanwhile, Paris will host a new international donor conference in June. Ahead of her meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas earlier in the week, the EU’s Ashton sounded affirmative on the Palestinian make – it – or – break – it September deadline, thus raising Palestinian expectations to the highest level possible without revealing whatever she might conceal of Israeli forthcoming to vindicate it. “It is a timeframe that everybody has signed up to,” she said, and while admitting it would be “challenging,” she added: “I think we have to try and reach it.” In Munich, the Quartet’s statement on Feb. 5 similarly reiterated its support for “concluding these (Palestinian – Israeli) negotiations by September 2011,” when the PLO negotiators hope to see international recognition of their aspired state come true.
This deadline was initially set by U.S. President Barak Obama when he, on last September 2, re-launched Palestinian – Israeli “direct” talks declaring they should be concluded a year later and, in his speech delivered to the UN General Assembly later that month expressed his hope 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, living in peace with Israel.”
In spite of their bitter “disappointment,” which was expressed on record by Abbas, with U.S. and European repeatedly broken past promises, PLO presidency and negotiators wishfully continue to make believe and insistently opt to being held hostage to renewed similar promises, hoping their “peace partners” would, by a miracle, commit to their words. Building on these “promises,” the PLO mandated its Palestinian Authority’s cabinet of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad with a two – year plan for building the institutions of a “state” that is scheduled to be completed by September.
However, Obama’s re-launched “direct” talks were suspended three weeks later, collapsing on Obama’s helplessness vis – a – vis Israel’s challenge to his on record call for the extension of the suspension of the ongoing expansion of the Israeli illegal colonial settlements on the area designated for a Palestinian state. Accordingly there are no negotiations to be “concluded” by September.
WHAT ‘MOMENT OF OPPORTUNITY’
Suddenly, the Quartet sees a “moment of opportunity” to re–launch the negotiations and possibly to meet the September deadline. Ironically, the opportunity is found in the demise of the regional pivotal Egyptian pillar of the “peace process,” which could not help the process out while it was still in power. The reader is owed an explanation.
True the post – Mubarak military transitional regime had already pronounced its commitment to the treaties signed by its predecessor “regionally and internationally,” implicitly including the peace treaty with Israel, but committing to this treaty is one thing and committing to the previous active Egyptian role in the “peace process” is another. At least for a year and for the near future thereafter the new regime will be too preoccupied internally to spare time for a role in a process that has proved futile over the past two decades, let alone that the foreign policy of the new emerging regime, especially in the regional arena, is still a guess.
Both Israel and the PLO are obvious losers of the absence of the Egyptian role in the process, and consequently weaker. Obviously, the Quartet perceives a weaker PLO – – which has just lost its Egyptian major Arab backer, and saw its U.S. backer renege on its promises and its European advocates of a two – state solution helplessly following in the footsteps of their U.S. leader – – would be in a position to be more receptive of a Quartet pressure to resume direct negotiations with its Israeli protagonist, which the Quartet failed to influence.
Readers may be reminded that a weaker PLO which lost its Iraqi backer following the Kuwait war in 1991 was unmercifully pressured to accept the historical concession of recognizing Israel on four fifths of its historical homeland, which in turn paved the way for convening the 1991 Madrid Middle East peace conference and later the Oslo accords to which the PLO has been held hostage ever since, wishfully believing that the international community which sponsored both events would ultimately deliver on its promises on a Palestinian state in return.
PLO peace credentials could only be challenged by its own people. 1600 documents revealed recently by Aljazeera satellite TV station and British The Guardian show how far the PLO negotiators have gone in their concessions for peace; Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat has resigned in consequence, his department is now being reshuffled and he went on record to say that the leaked documents endangered his life. Never in PLO history its leadership was so isolated and its legitimacy and credibility challenged internally as it is now, thanks to the broken promises of the U.S. – led sponsors of the “peace process.”
Obviously, next September is the moment of truth for the PLO. Then, it has no choice but to deliver on its own promises to its people or face Palestinian waves of the Tsunami of the revolt of Arab masses against the status quo, which would become impossible to sustain even for the shortest period of time unless the PLO is empowered with the long promised and long awaited Palestinian state. The PLO has no interest whatsoever in sustaining the status quo; Israel is the only beneficiary. This unbalanced political equation is a recipe for disaster, not for peace making.
The alternative was predicted by the Arab – Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset, Hanin Zoubi, who declared recently that “maybe we can free ourselves of (Israeli) occupation as well,” citing the example of the Egyptian Intifada and noting: “Israel has been relying on the weakness of the Arab people, but now this has been changed.”
Taken by the overwhelming surprise of the Intifada of the Arab masses in Tunisia and Egypt, the world public opinion seems to forget that “Intifada” is an Arab word coined for the first time in a Palestinian context to describe a civil and peaceful revolt and uprising against the Israeli military occupation that brought the PLO officially into the occupied territories and the “peace process.”
The current status quo is ripe for another Intifida that would certainly take the PLO out of both, unless the Quartet takes immediate action to avert such a drastic shift of events, but the Quartet action is no more urgent than in Israel. Squeezed between external and internal pressures, the PLO as a peace partner is at its weakest breaking point and could not afford the slightest additional pressure.
Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.