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Quartet's gap between words and deeds

By Jeremy Bowen
Middle East Editor, BBC News

Tony Blair
Tony Blair has been the Quartet's representative in the Middle East since 2007

In the last few years, in various elegant rooms in some of the world's major cities, a small group of people have met periodically to talk about the Middle East.

They are the representatives of the Quartet of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

Late last year in Paris, as Christmas lights shimmered in the streets outside, Tony Blair, Britain's former Prime Minister, stood up.

He was in the early stages of his new part time job as the Quartet's representative in the Middle East, but he seemed to recognise that it was quite a step from where they were to the chilly realities of winter on the West Bank.

Mr Blair said they would only be credible if they could narrow the distance between what was said in international meetings and the real lives of the people they were supposed to be trying to help.

Like any international grouping, it is as strong, or as weak, as the collective political will of its members

The best part of a year later, a new report from leading international aid agencies says that is not happening.

The report is damning. It says that the Quartet is not "making adequate progress towards improving the lives of Palestinians nor improving the prospects for peace".

Since the Quartet includes most of the world's rich and powerful countries it makes you wonder what exactly they have been doing.

Fatal threat

They have, the report says, spoken of their concern about the growth of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories 18 separate times.

Yet settlements, which are illegal under international law, are expanding faster than they were last year, and the aid agencies say, are "taking a drastic toll on Palestinian daily life".

Israeli policeman prevents Palestinians from reaching Jerusalem
Palestinians have little more freedom of movement than they had a year ago
Israelis and their friends would say that the report is flawed, because it does not accept Israel's argument that many of its actions are justified on security grounds.

The report's authors argue instead that squeezing the Palestinians in the way that they have been squeezed is bad for peace.

It says that the failure of the Quartet to remove the severe restrictions on the free movement of Palestinians "may also constitute a fatal threat to the broader peace process".

So why has the Quartet not managed to match its deeds with its own words? Partly for the same reason that US policy towards the Israelis and the Palestinians has been failing.

Take settlements. Condoleezza Rice, speaking as US Secretary of State and not as a Quartet member, has also said that she is not happy about the growth of Jewish settlements.

Her messages register with the Israelis. But they have also been ignored.

No pressure

For the last eight years the Israeli promoters of Jewish settlements have known that what has mattered most has been the attitude of US President George W Bush.

He has never put significant pressure on Israel to fulfil its commitments.

On the other hand, for the Americans putting pressure on the Palestinians is politically easy. It happens often - and often doesn't work either.

One criticism of US policy is that it might be more effective if it was more even-handed. That imbalance transmits itself to the Quartet.

Like any international grouping, it is as strong, or as weak, as the collective political will of its members.

But the report of the aid agencies recognises that the Quartet is good at raising money for a variety of projects, mainly economic, and that it has worked hard to improve the still incomplete rule of law on the West Bank.

And diplomats who are just as critical as the aid agencies about the Quartet's political performance consider that as an institution it is worth keeping.

They argue that the presence of the UN, the EU and Russia stops the business of Middle East peacemaking being simply a private department of US foreign policy.

It has not made peace happen though. And it will take more than a new face in the White House to change that.


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