Mideast Quartet Challenges Key Policy Position of Israel’s Prime Minister
September 25, 2009 - 5:01 AMRatcheting up international pressure on Israel, the powerful entity known as the Mideast Quartet on Thursday confronted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on a key policy position – the insistence on "reciprocity" in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations also urged Israel to “freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth,” a position at odds with that held by current and previous Israeli governments.
But it is the question of reciprocity that most directly challenges Netanyahu.
In a statement released after meeting in New York, the Quartet called on Israel and the Palestinians to meet previous obligations, “irrespective of reciprocity,” and so create conditions allowing talks to resume soon.
Reciprocity is the principle that Israel will not make what it views as unilateral concessions, but only fulfill its obligations contained in signed agreements when and if the Palestinian Authority meets its commitments. Reciprocity has been a watchword for Netanyahu going back to his first term in office, in 1996-1999.
It fell into disuse under his successors, but Netanyahu this year began emphasizing the principle again.
Before P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas headed to Washington to meet with Obama in May, Netanyahu stated, “We want an end to the conflict and we want reciprocity in the demands made of both sides, and in carrying them out.”
He reiterated it again over the summer, amid concern that Fatah’s first convention in 20 years was planning to pass resolutions, including retaining the right to use violence as well as positions of refugees and Jerusalem that Israeli governments on the right and left have long rejected.
In a message on the eve of the Fatah gathering, Netanyahu warned Abbas’ organization that henceforth negotiations with the Palestinians would once again be “based on reciprocity, not unilateralism.”
Reciprocity in the roadmap
Major obligations for each side under the Mideast “Roadmap” proposed by the Quartet in 2003 involve security and settlements.
The P.A. was expected to “undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere.”
Israel was expected to freeze “all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”
The P.A. and its backers say it went a long way towards fulfilling its security obligation, in the process causing deep divisions in Palestinian society and the bloody rift with Hamas.
Its detractors dispute this, pointing to factors like the activities of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a violent gang affiliated to Abbas’ Fatah.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades has been responsible for the deaths of more than 130 Israelis, most of them civilians, in at least 25 attacks since 2001, including suicide bombings.
Although some Fatah and P.A. figures have tried to distance the Brigades from Fatah, the Fatah convention in August formally endorsed the terror group as its military wing.
‘The only viable solution’
The explicit rejection of reciprocity in the Quartet statement released after Thursday’s meeting is not the only part that will cause unease in Jerusalem.
Its position on settlements is also a direct challenge. Netanyahu says Israel will not curtail “natural growth” within existing communities located on disputed territory, and his government also does not regard neighborhoods in Jerusalem as settlements.
Obama’s Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell during a recent visit to the region tried, and failed, to get Netanyahu to reverse course on settlements.
At this week’s Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas summit, Obama said the Israelis had “discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity” and called on the sides to relaunch negotiations now, comments interpreted by analysts and in media reports as a softening or “pivot” by the president.
If that interpretation was accurate, however, the Quartet statement released by the State Department suggests that any such pivot has since been reversed.
“The Quartet urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth; and to refrain from provocative actions in East Jerusalem,” it said.
The U.S. was represented in the Quartet meeting by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mitchell.
Elsewhere, the Quartet statement could be read as endorsing the view that a Palestinian state must be established throughout the area captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.
“The only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an agreement that ends the occupation that began in 1967,” it said.
The Arab demand that Israel should withdraw to the borders held before the 1967 war, also known as the 1949 armistice lines, has been ruled out by successive Israeli governments. It was also conceded as unrealistic by previous U.S. administrations.
In a letter to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, President Bush wrote that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” He added that “all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”
“It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities,” Bush said.
U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) – which the Quartet statements cites, along with others – call for “withdrawal from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”
Drafters of those resolutions intentionally omitted the words “the” or “all” before the word “territories,” acknowledging that the exact land to be surrendered would be subject to future negotiation. And that negotiation was to take into account the other central requirement of the resolution – Israel’s “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”