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The Method in the Quartet’s Madness

The run-up to the Quartet’s latest bid to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks is far more revealing than the talks themselves are likely to be, even if they ever take place. The U.S., UN, EU and Russia tried frantically to draft “terms of reference” for the talks, meaning broad parameters for what an agreement should look like. But in the end, they had to scrap the effort, because they couldn’t even reach agreement among themselves on these parameters.

In other words, contrary to the shopworn claim that “There is no mystery to what a final deal would look like” (as a New York Times editorial asserted just last week), there is so little agreement that four mediators – all of whom care much less about the issues concerned than the parties themselves – couldn’t even strike a deal on the broad outlines, much less all the pesky details.

As Reuters reported, the key sticking point was the Palestinians’ refusal, via their proxy, Russia, to recognize Israel as a Jewish state:

“The heart of the matter was that the only way in which it was going to work as a basis for negotiations was if there was a reference on the one side to ’67 lines plus swaps, which was the minimum but not sufficient requirement for the Palestinians, and a Jewish state as one of the goals of the negotiations, which was the minimum requirement of the Israelis,” said one source briefed on the negotiations….

There are many formulas to address whether Israel should be viewed as a Jewish state, including that it is a homeland for the Jewish people or that it embodies the right of the Jewish people to self-determination or that its status as a Jewish state should not prejudice any Palestinian “right of return.”

None appear to have sufficed, whether because they might be seen as unacceptable to the Israelis or because they would be impossible to swallow for the Palestinians.

So instead, the Quartet made do with urging the parties to resume negotiations “without delay or preconditions,” but on a strict timetable that gives them one month to agree on an agenda and a “method of proceeding in the negotiation.” In short, the parties themselves are supposed to agree in one month on parameters the mediators tried for months to agree on with no success.

The scary part, however, is there’s a method in this madness, and it’s implicit in the rest of the timetable: The parties are instructed to conclude a final-status deal by no later than “the end of 2012.”

In other words, the Quartet is telling the Palestinians, just keep the negotiation farce going until the end of 2012, when Barack Obama will be either a lame duck or a newly-elected second-term president, and either way will be free of the electoral constraints that currently require him to veto your bid to obtain UN recognition as a state without accepting the Jewish state’s right to exist.

If that interpretation is correct, then the most important development in the Israeli-Palestinian arena over the next year will take place not in direct talks or in the Quartet, but in Congress. For come December 2012, a credible congressional threat to the UN’s generous American funding may be the only way to halt the Palestinians’ unilateral statehood drive.