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Tuesday, 16 July, 2002, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
Mid-East Quartet's muted tune
US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Colin Powell will put forward an action plan

When international problems get beyond a solution, diplomats tend to set up working groups - and the worse the problem, the grander the group - but the danger always is that they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

The real decisions, often, are taken elsewhere.

It was so in Bosnia in the nineties. It is proving the case in the Middle East now.

Trio and Quartet

The so-called Madrid Quartet is made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. There is also a Trio from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan which occasionally plays as well.

Yasser Arafat in Ramallah HQ
Arafat's future role is in dispute

The Quartet issued a statement on 10 April 2002 in Madrid (where there was also a Middle East conference in 1991, which shows how little progress has been made).

Broadly it called for a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine would live in peace side by side, in a settlement based on the principle of land for peace.

But to see how things have moved on beyond the control of the Quartet, one need simply to look at what that 10 April statement said about the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

It called him the "recognised, elected leader of the Palestinian people".

The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, signed up to that statement.

Subsequently, on 24 June, President George Bush decided that there should be a "new Palestinian leadership". That part of the Madrid statement, in effect, went out of the window. One member of the Quartet was playing very loudly and drowned out the others.


Events also took over, as events tend to.

It just won't happen without an international push

Gareth Evans

There were suicide bombs and now there is an Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank.

Talk in the statement about implementing the security plans drawn up by the CIA Director George Tenet and the former US Senator George Mitchell sound like moonshine.

The Quartet is now playing a more muted tune.

Its other members seem to want to avoid a confrontation with the United States and to work instead on moderating American policy.

'Kick upstairs?'

They are interested, for example, in the comment Mr Powell has made about Yasser Arafat. When asked whether Mr Arafat might be "kicked upstairs" he replied: "It's a formula I'd be more than willing to consider".

Israeli tank in Nablus
The Israeli army controls the main West Bank towns

It is worth remembering that Mr Bush's speech did not refer by name to Yasser Arafat. So a promotion upwards and outwards could be regarded as not inconsistent with a strict reading of his words.

But it is hard to see how it would work in practice, especially if Mr Arafat is re-elected leader.

Some of the non-US members, pressed by the Trio of Arab states and by the Palestinian Authority itself, also want progress on a timetable, or at least a process, for an eventual final settlement.

That, too, is the idea of the International Crisis Group, an unofficial working party of experienced diplomats and politicians. It has called on the Quartet and the Trio to lead the way to a comprehensive agreement.

Former Australian Foreign Minister and ICG President Gareth Evans says: "The compromises are there for the taking... but it just won't happen without a major international push".

Glue holding it together

And this is perhaps the glue which is holding the whole thing together. Just about everyone agrees on the principle and outline of the final settlement. So everyone has an interest in trying to get there.

It is sadly ironic that there is such a consensus at a time when the situation in the Palestinian territories is the worst it has been since the Israelis captured them in 1967.

The Quartet could be used as a mechanism to allow Arab states and the Palestinians themselves to accept some of the compromises which will be necessary. That in turn could make it easier for Israel to make its own moves.

Robert Malley, International Crisis Group
"I've no illusions about how difficult it will be"

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See also:

16 Jul 02 | Middle East
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