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Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Quartet diners swallow their own statement

On the radio yesterday, Michael Heseltine described a key moment in the Conservatives' victory in the 1983 General Election. It was, he said, when they stopped attacking Labour's policy of "unilateral disarmament" and talked instead of "one-sided disarmament". Unilateral disarmament had actually been quite popular in the polls, until people understood what "one-sided disarmament" simply meant, at which point there was a massive shift in public opinion against unilateralism.

Israel would doubtless love to be able to pull off a similar semantic sleight of hand in its diplomatic battle against a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood at the UN in September. Although, having said that, this remains a surprisingly positive time for Israel diplomatically, despite the looming shadow of September, and Israel's bilateral relations with various countries have never been better. Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu says that he would be happy to talk to the Palestinians "tomorrow", by which he actually means "today". 

Given that the Israeli Prime Minister is saying this, then why are talks not happening? The international community's Middle East Quartet met for dinner yesterday with a modest statement set for release after they'd eaten; they couldn't even agree on that, and are meeting again today in pursuit of an agreement

The statement was going to endorse President Obama's 19 May speech calling for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the borders of a future state based on pre-1967 lines with agreed-upon land swaps and security guarantees. Resisting French pressure to invite Israel and the Palestinians to a summit, the statement would have announced modest plans for a Quartet delegation to visit Israel/Palestine.

It is tempting to ask what is wrong with the French call for a summit? After all, the UK, French and Germans have announced their (our) four parameters for Israeli/Palestinian talks, says the BBC: "borders based on territory captured by Israel in 1967 with mutually agreed adjustments, security arrangements that both end any sign of occupation and prevent terrorism, a shared capital in Jerusalem, and a just solution to the refugee question." Why not just get on with talking about these things now?

Some would say that it is worth trying to talk even if there is little chance of success - after all, why not try to make peace? The powerful counter-argument is that failed talks would not only fail to achieve anything, but could actually make things worse. It can therefore arguably be better actually to put off substantive talks until they are likely to achieve anything, while continuing, in the meantime, to take steps to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians (and Israelis)

Nobody would be more pleased than I would be if the Israelis and Palestinians found a way to re-start meaningful talks. But the "it's more urgent than ever to sort this out now" approach is not helpful and one is bound to ask: why is it now more urgent than ever? It's always been urgent, so what's special about now? Which is the greater priority: sorting this out properly, or sorting it out quickly? Surely the former. 

Meanwhile, a cross-party group of MEPs has written to Baroness (Catherine) Ashton expressing opposition to a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood; saying: "It is precisely because we believe in the justness of the Palestinian cause that we urge them to refrain from seeking UN recognition of a unilaterally declared state, a counterproductive step we fear could set back the chances for peace."

I agree. The UK Government is waiting to see if there actually is a UN resolution on Palestinian statehood before deciding what to do about it, as well as seeking to co-ordinate policy with European allies (and presumably also with the Americans). I cannot see a unilateral declaration of statehood as being helpful and it's just a political ruse on the Palestinians' part, given that they know that the Americans will veto it anyway - they know that the UN will not create a Palestinian state in September. Although it's interesting to see at least one Israeli politician suggesting an alternative approach

The only thing that's certain is that this is not all going to have been magically resolved by September.

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