Israel and the Quartet Must Seize the Moment
Financial Times, 19 September 2006
If there is to be any chance of forging new momentum for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement out of the ashes of the past several months, it will have to begin with acceptance of the leadership chosen by the Palestinians as a legitimate partner by Israel and the Quartet (America, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations).
That was not possible so long as Hamas made up the whole of the Palestinian government and refused to accept the Quartet’s three conditions: that it renounce violence, recognise Israel and abide by past Israeli-Palestinian accords. But things are about to change. An understanding has been reached between Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s Palestinian president, and Ismail Haniya, the prime minister from Hamas, on establishing a government of national unity. Its political programme will, on current indications, go a significant way towards meeting international concerns, accepting two of the three criteria in practice and one in principle.
The new government is expected to commit itself to honouring international accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation signed with Israel, and to achieving a mutual ceasefire. There will be an implicit recognition of Israel, both through acceptance of past agreements and the endorsement of the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which ties normal relations with Israel to a full withdrawal from occupied territory and resolution of the refugee question. Moreover, negotiations will be conducted by Mr Abbas, who accepts all three criteria without reservation, significantly enhancing his authority and guaranteeing both Israel and the international community an interlocutor they claim to respect.
The Quartet members, when they meet in New York, should acknowledge all this as a significant turning point. But there is a serious risk they will not. While there have been encouraging signs from the other Quartet members, the door of the US has remained shut.
That is a mistake. Hamas cannot be eliminated by denial and has earned the democratic right to a place in government. As the Quartet announced in its first post-election statement, all parties should respect the results.
Moreover, since then Hamas leaders have displayed some ideological flexibility, making clear that they are ready to share power with Fatah and to yield the negotiating mandate to the leader of the PLO. These developments are all the more remarkable when judged against the background of a raging conflict in Gaza and a fiscal crisis artificially stimulated through a financial and trade embargo. Amid this maelstrom there will still be a Palestinian government committed to a negotiated settlement, led by the two prime factions whose rivalry hitherto undermined peace efforts.
There are undeniably problems. The understanding is peppered with caveats. But cooler heads should regard these as opt-in rather than opt-out provisions, designed to ensure the broadest possible Palestinian buy-in. If the bar is raised any higher, the numbers of dissenting factions baying at the gates of the waning Palestinian Authority could grow to dangerous proportions. Hardest to accept will be no explicit recognition of Israel. But Israel engages warmly with many governments in the region that do not formally recognise it. The two Arab states which did so – Egypt and Jordan – acted only after their conflict over borders was resolved.
The Quartet should welcome the formation of a national unity government and then focus on what really matters: whether it is prepared to transform its words into action by enforcing a real ceasefire on all Palestinian factions. To give the government vital breathing space, the Quartet should lift its financial boycott and support the lifting of the Israeli siege by returning its monitors to the Rafah passenger crossing and stationing fresh ones at the Karni goods crossing. And it should help the PA rebuild its institutional capacity.
One further step is required. Without Israeli reciprocity, no agreement can hold. The Quartet must now ask Israel to honour agreements such as the roadmap; to transfer outstanding tax revenues; agree to a mutual cessation of violence by ending assassinations, incursions and bombardment; and resume bilateral negotiations in good faith. The Quartet should also establish an effective monitoring presence on the ground to verify both sides’ implementation of these steps. After six years without a political process, it is time for the casuistry to stop and serious negotiations to begin.
The writer is president of the International Crisis Group