A great deal of water has flowed under the bridge since my piece of 25 February ("Moscow and Tripoli – the scene shifts"). In that article I mentioned that a meeting of the Quartet had been mooted for 19 March, and that the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks actually taking place might partly depend on its outcome. In fact even more may hang on the result of the forthcoming Quartet meeting in Moscow than might originally have been envisaged.
Only 17 short days ago Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was unwilling to commit himself to re-entering negotiations with Israel. He had laid down a series of conditions, including a complete freeze by Israel on construction in the West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem. Moreover, he required the backing of Arab governments before considering the idea, and he proposed to raise the matter in the next scheduled meeting of the Arab League on 27 March in Tripoli.
But in the interim the Israeli-Palestinian kaleidoscope has been given a thorough, and totally unexpected, shaking. To start with, a special meeting of the Arab League was convened almost at once in Cairo, and the League promptly backed the idea of Abbas entering into "proximity talks" with Israel, to be hosted by the US. The Palestinian Authority gave its go-ahead a day later. Previous conditions laid down by Abbas were set aside or ignored. Additional assurances sought by Abbas from the US were provided to his satisfaction. Indeed it appears that a preliminary round of talks, with US envoy George Mitchell as interlocutor, may actually have taken place.
The deal seemed so cut-and-dried that Washington arranged for Vice President Joe Biden to travel to the Middle East to inaugurate, as it were, the reopening of peace negotiations.
Then it all went sour. First the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, summoned the media to announce a highly controversial scheme in the Arab neighbourhood of Silwan that would have destroyed some hundred houses in order to provide space for an open area of parkland known as the "King's Garden." It was only a last minute intervention by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that succeeded in kicking this potential public relations disaster into the long grass.
Worse was to follow. On the day that George Mitchell announced that proximity talks had been agreed, Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, gave permission for 112 new housing units to be built in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit. Facing accusations of violating the government's announced freeze on West Bank construction, Barak hastily assured the media that this was a one-off measure taken on safety grounds.
Finally, and worst of all, US Vice President Joe Biden had not been in the region twenty-four hours before Israel's Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, announced final approval of a scheme to construct 1600 new housing units in an ultra-orthodox neighbourhood in north-east Jerusalem. The action was instantly condemned outright by Joe Biden himself, and indeed it could only be interpreted as inept and insulting at best, and at worst downright provocative and intentionally disruptive of the peace initiative.
Arab voices in general, and those of Palestinians in particular, have been raised in protest. Statements issued from various sources have suggested that the prospects of the proximity talks getting under way, once George Mitchell returns to the Middle East this coming week, are far from as bright as they had been. Whether they have actually been derailed, time alone will tell.
Which makes the meeting of the Quartet in Moscow this coming Friday of even greater significance than might otherwise have been the case.
The Quartet? An ad hoc gathering of the USA, the UN, the EU and Russia. In 2002 it seemed obvious that the complex, ongoing Middle East conflict could only be resolved through coordinated international pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. In consequence the Quartet was formed, and its first session was held in Madrid in April 2002. In 2003, the Quartet proposed the Roadmap, a detailed timetable for peace, intended to lead to a two-state solution with a democratic Palestinian state co-existing alongside Israel. On 19 November 2003, the UN Security Council officially endorsed the Roadmap with Resolution 1515.
The Roadmap is a three-stage peace plan under which both sides have pledged to move simultaneously towards reaching an accord. In the first phase the Palestinians are called upon to introduce measures to stamp out terrorism, build democratic structures, draft a constitution, reform the security apparatus and hold free and fair elections. Israel is meanwhile expected to facilitate the establishment of workable social, government and economic structures, and to halt the building of settlements. The second phase envisages the creation of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and elements of sovereignty. The third phase envisages an agreement on the final status, incorporating the issues of borders, refugees, Jerusalem and settlements.
Expected to attend the forthcoming Quartet meeting are UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs Lady Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and the Quartet's special envoy, appointed on 27 June 2007, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Host Lavrov has already announced that during the Moscow meeting he is going to seek bilateral talks with the other Quartet representatives. Russia has previously indicated its interest in the idea of holding an Israeli-Palestine peace conference in Moscow. Is that the rabbit that Lavrov will be producing out of his hat?