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A Return to Quartet Roadmap amid Dead Ends
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By Gong Shaopeng

Overshadowed by media coverage of the escalating bloodshed in Iraq, the Diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East peace process reconvened last Friday in Washington, DC. The gathering was a speedy response to the meeting proposed by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mid-January.

In a statement at the close of the meeting, the Quartet composed of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the US said it would push to revive the Palestinian-Israeli talks in line with the "Quartet roadmap" but voiced deep concern about the violence among Palestinians that threatens to undermine the effort.

Besides Rice, participants included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country holds the six-month EU presidency, High Representative for European Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The Quartet stated that it recognized "the critical need to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which would contribute to security and stability in the region".

The members pledged "to support efforts to put in place a process with the goal of ending the (Israeli) occupation that began in 1967 and creating an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian State, living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel, and reaffirmed its commitment to a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338".

The Quartet roadmap was initiated by US President George W. Bush in 2003, with agreement from the Quartet to implement it in three phases.

First, the Palestinian authority should take immediate steps to end all violence against Israel. In return, the Israeli government should immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected in occupied Palestinian areas since March 2001.

In the second phase, both the Israelis and the Palestinians along with the Quartet would focus on creating an independent Palestinian State with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty.

Phase three objectives were to sign a permanent status agreement and end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before the end of 2005.

However, from the very start, the roadmap ran into difficulties. At the end of 2003, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to continue negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and turned to his "unilateral plan". As a result, the Palestinian issues failed to be fully resolved as scheduled.

The difficulties in implementing the Quartet roadmap lie in the fact that the Bush administration did not place the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the core of its Middle East policy.

The Bush administration's foreign policy in its first term was deeply influenced by the neo-conservatives, with emphasis on promoting Western values.

When President Bush declared the "end" of the Iraq War in May 2003, he immediately began to promote his Greater Middle East Initiative, aiming to instill a Western political system and values in Middle East countries, with Iraq as a model.

Reality has gone against the will of the Bush administration. Directed by the United States, Iraq produced a new constitution, a new Congress and a Cabinet, but failed to end turbulence. Serious sectarian conflicts have evolved and the death toll of US soldiers has risen to more than 3,000.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has found no way out in dealing with Iran. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency in August 2005, Iran restarted its uranium enrichment program. The deteriorating Middle East situation made the Bush administration aware that Iran now poses the biggest challenge to the US.

The administration's domestic wake-up call came with the Republican loss of both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections last November.

Facing both internal and external pressure, the Bush administration had to renounce the neo-conservatives' rhetoric of freedom and democracy in dealing with the Middle East. The administration is now adopting a realist policy seeking allies in the region to work together to curb the rising influence of Iran.

However, if the US wants support from Arab allies, it must make some progress on the core issue of the Middle East, namely, the Palestinian issue. That is why the Bush administration has turned its attention to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including reopening the process of the Quartet roadmap.

Unfortunately, by the time the Bush administration shifted its focus back to the Palestine issue, dramatic changes had taken place.

In the Palestinian Legislative Council election held in January 2006, Hamas defeated the Mahmound Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Hamas won 76 of the 132 seats and established a new Cabinet led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Because the Hamas cabinet refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Israel's existence, makes no commitment to fulfilling the peace agreement reached between the PLO and Israel, and has not renounced armed struggle, Israel refused to transfer the tax revenues it collected from the Palestinians for the Palestinian Authority under partial peace accords.

Isolating the Hamas government, the US and the EU halted economic aid to Palestine. The result was that the Hamas cabinet was mired in a financial crisis shortly after it took office. Some 165,000 civil servants and security forces the majority of whom are Fatah members protested against the Hamas government's failure to pay salaries. The Fatah protests finally escalated into conflicts with Hamas armed forces.

Abbas has agreed to implement the roadmap and offered to establish a united government with Hamas. However, the negotiations produced no outcome. The sticking points involved reaching a consensus on power distribution, particularly in the key posts of minister of finance and minister of internal affairs.

Prior to the Quartet meeting, the US promised $86 million in aid to the security forces loyal to Abbas. This triggered Hamas suspicions that Fatah was planning to stage a military coup to overthrow the Haniyeh cabinet in support of the US. Despite numerous ceasefire agreements between the two sides, gunfire between Hamas and Fatah continues to take lives in the Gaza Strip.

If the conflicts within the Palestinian camp cannot be settled, how can the Palestinians resume negotiations with Israel and how can the Quartet roadmap process be reopened?

I firmly believe that the Quartet roadmap is an effective approach to realizing land for peace through political negotiations although I am deeply concerned over the current Palestinian situation.

The good news is that the leaders of Fatah and Hamas, at the call of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, have reportedly agreed to go to the holy Muslim city of Mecca for talks to resolve their differences.

I sincerely hope that the negotiations in Mecca will be successful. I also hope the restarted Quartet roadmap will help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a conflict that has lasted for generations in a just, permanent and comprehensive way.

Gong Shaopeng is professor of international relations at the Beijing-based Foreign Affairs University's Institute of International Relations.

(China Daily February 6, 2007)

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