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A new approach?

March 19, 2010

The Middle East diplomatic quartet met in Moscow on Friday to weigh the options on how to get stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians back on track. But experts say it may be time to change tactics.

hand lifting up two playing cards
Is the Middle East quartet playing its cards right?Image: AP

The Middle East Quartet of leaders vowed to continue talks aimed at restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

The mediators - the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States - said they were committed to resuming peace talks as soon as possible, according to a statement read by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the close of the group's latest meeting, in Moscow on Friday.

Russia had hoped its inclusion in the quartet could break a stalemate in the negotiations, which in recent years has been dominated by high-profile mediators from the other members of the quartet.

But Evgeny Satanowski from the Institute of the Middle East in Moscow said reality has crushed Russia's hopes of making a lasting mark in the peace process for now.

"The real world is separating itself from the Middle East quartet," Satanowski said, calling the group "an expensive club for diplomats."

Christian-Peter Hanelt, senior Middle East expert from the Bertelsmann Foundation in the German city of Guetersloh, said the quartet had indeed become reduced to a casual contact group which meets twice a year - and not even in the Middle East. Yet it had so much potential, he said.

"The quartet per se is an excellent instrument with great symbolic significance which could be a strong facilitator, in particular since the US as the driving force is accepted," Hanelt told Deutsche Welle.

Other options

Hanelt said a common platform for dialogue was the key to peace in the Middle East. Many conflicts in the region are interconnected. Future diplomatic efforts therefore require that all of the actors involved sit at one table to talk - and the quartet could mediate such a common platform.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with peace dove
Can Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Syrian President al-Assad reach a peace deal?Image: AP / picture-alliance/ dpa/dpawe

Almut Moeller from the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin said the likelihood of a two-state solution in Israel was narrowing. Perhaps it was time for the quartet to reconsider its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and turn to other regional conflicts which may be more promising, she said.

"They may have to accept the situation as it is, even if it isn't an agreeable one, and help to solve the conflict between Israel and Syria," Moeller told Deutsche Welle.

Hanelt agreed that it would be easier to facilitate peace between Israel and Syria, particularly since Syria was keen on improving relations with the US and Europe. Yet further options exist to promote peace in the region, such as the Arab Peace Initiative, as well as the working plan by Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority. These require support from the international community, he said.

EU support for the US

Friday's meeting in Moscow comes amid high tensions after Israel last week announced the construction of 1,600 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem. The international community has condemned the move, which sparked a major row between Israel and its closest ally, the US. Washington's Middle East envoy George Mitchell subsequently postponed a planned visit to the region.

Palestinian demonstrators hurl stones in jerusalem
Palestinians have protested against Israel's latest building plans in JerusalemImage: AP

"The situation is marked by frustration right now," Moeller said.

Still, the Moscow meeting is significant, she said. The US is the key player in the quartet and has the greatest political leverage. It has undertaken an unprecedented course of confrontation with Israel since President Barack Obama took office. His administration has increased pressure on Israel. It is now getting support from the European Union, represented by its new foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

"The EU is getting on board in this setting," Moeller said. "For the first time, the pressure is truly on. This is sending the right signal, to bolster the US position."

Ashton has been on a whirlwind tour through the Middle East this week, with stops in Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and a rare visit to the Gaza Strip.

Ashton has said she will push for the launch of Palestinian-Israeli "proximity" talks as a prelude to formal negotiations. And UN Secretary General Ban said Friday's meeting in Moscow should help restart talks. Israeli and Palestinian leaders had no alternative to eventual direct negotiations, he said.

But neither Israel nor the Palestinians are making a step in this direction.

Author: Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Nancy Isenson