Obama envoys hope “Quartet statement” can avert Palestinian UN bid

President Obama has dispatched his envoys again to the Middle East, in another bid to stymie Palestinian plans to seek enhanced international recognition at the UN later this month.

White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross and State Department Middle East envoy David Hale departed for Israel Tuesday. Middle East experts in consultation with the administration say the U.S. envoys are engaged in two main efforts. First, they're pursuing a full-court press on Palestinian leaders to induce them to abandon their plans for a UN bid, by threatening U.S. aid could be cut, among other measures.

And second, Hale and Ross are trying to line up the international partners in the so-called Middle East "Quartet"—made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations--to join them in issuing a statement outlining terms for resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at some future point.

The "Quartet" bid highlights the degree to which Washington must negotiate with allies for international cover for its stalemated Middle East diplomacy efforts amid mounting international doubts. Beyond the central issue of how to get the long-feuding Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table--which no one seems to think is likely to happen in the near term--Washington to date has struggled to get the Europeans, Russians and UN to even agree on language to put in a prospective joint statement.

"The U.S. seems to have put all of its money on a Quartet statement," said Zvika Krieger, a Middle East expert with the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, who consults frequently with the administration, in an interview with The Envoy Tuesday.

The wording of such a statement would likely hew closely to the terms Obama outlined in his May speech on the Middle East, Krieger said. In that pronouncement, the president called for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate borders based on the pre-1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. In addition, Washington has been pressing its Quartet partners--unsuccessfully so far--to endorse Israel's demand that the Palestinians agree in advance to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Russia, in particular, has balked over this proposed condition.

The U.S. administration has "tunnel focus on not letting a resolution happen," Krieger continued. American officials "still think that [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas would back down given the right incentive."

But some administration allies say that America's preoccupation with a Quartet statement demonstrates just how dysfunctional U.S.-led diplomacy on the Middle East peace process has become. And that, in turn, is a central argument Palestinians have put forward to explain their quest to seek greater diplomatic leverage by pursuing the UN route.

"A Quartet statement—other than demonstrating they can write a statement and release it—falls into the category of doomed," said Daniel Levy, head of Middle East issues at the New American Foundation. "Why do [the Americans] want a Quartet statement? In order to show that they are not isolated and can still work in concert."

Still, U.S. officials are trying to counter the emerging narrative of a hopelessly dysfunctional diplomatic process.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Quartet envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and EU high representative Catherine Ashton Wednesday, a State Department official told Haaretz newspaper. "We believe there is a way forward," the official said. At least he sounded cautiously optimistic that the U.S. and UK could find common ground on the vexing issue, if not the parties to the conflict.

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