In recent months, following the change of government in the United States, the Middle East Quartet resumed its activities. The Quartet, comprised of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN, was established in 2002 to assist in advancing peace efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
The three other Quartet members refused, largely paralyzing the group during the Donald Trump’s term. Does the renewal of the Quartet’s activity indicate a renewed international interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is the Quartet even capable of leading diplomatic efforts to resolve it?
The question of the role of the Quartet arose in a series of recent policy dialogue meetings facilitated by experts at the Mitvim Institute (Dr. Nimrod Goren, Victoria Solkovits, and I) with various European, Arab, American and UN diplomats and experts as part of an effort to map the international discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Participants emphasized that the Quartet is “the only show in town,” one that must be preserved and restored to operation. Additionally, the Quartet is perceived as a mechanism with broad international legitimacy and untapped potential that plays a crucial role as the center of gravity of international efforts related to the conflict.
The Quartet is designed to ensure coordination and alignment of the bodies involved and to prevent a variety of initiatives and uncoordinated moves lacking a common framework.
In the past, the Quartet has been criticized for its weakness and inefficiency, arguing that the group has failed in its mission and only continues to operate due to the international community’s ambivalence to design something new.
The Trump administration led an independent policy, which was opposed by the international community, and demanded that the Quartet base its work on the president’s “Deal of the Century.”
Some have proposed changing the group’s structure, such as adding Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan. Despite these criticisms, the diplomats and experts we spoke with expressed reservations about changing the Quartet, claiming it would harm its efficiency by making it difficult to operate and act, rather than rely solely on statements.
Instead, there is agreement that cooperation between the Quartet and the “Arab Quartet” (mainly Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) must be increased. Egypt and Jordan have emphasized their desire to demonstrate their status as key regional players and to be involved in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Gulf states have expressed their willingness to assist as well if the parties want them to.
Additionally, the EU’s role within the group has occasionally experienced challenges arising from internal disputes between EU member states over the conflict; these challenges were exacerbated during the Trump administration. While these disagreements could damage the EU’s ability to play a leading role in the peace process, European diplomats argue that the member states are united in their positions on the fundamental issues of the conflict. This unity was reflected in sweeping opposition to Trump’s “Deal of the Century” and the Israeli government’s annexation intentions.
Existing circumstances provide the Quartet a special opportunity given the greater US willingness for multilateral activity on the conflict. Whereas in the past the US insisted on an almost exclusive role in advancing the peace process, relegating other actors to the sidelines, the current administration seems interested in cooperation.
The Biden administration prioritizes a multilateral approach as a global strategy on other conflicts as well. According to European diplomats, the days of exclusive US mediation are over, as Washington has lost its traditional status of an honest broker. They argue that President Joe Biden will be unable to play the role that the US played in the Clinton or Obama eras, even if he wanted to, and a broader framework is required involving European and Arab actors.
After Biden assumed office, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the Quartet has been unable to convene for a long time, but he believes the changes in Washington set the path for the group’s activities to resume. Indeed, the Quartet resumed its meetings and announced at the end of its March session that it was discussing efforts to renew negotiations on the two-state solution and on measures to advance “freedom, security and well-being” for Palestinians and Israelis.
Three of the four Quartet representatives are ending their terms in the first half of 2021: The US representative was replaced due to the change in administration, Tor Wennesland has replaced Nickolay Mladenov as the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, and the EU representative’s term ended in April. The fresh members could introduce new motivations, ideas and directions for action.
In light of the Quartet’s paralysis during the Trump administration, Germany, France, Egypt and Jordan formed a new, informal group called the “Munich Group” in order to preserve the core principles of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the two-state solution vis-à-vis the Trump plan and annexation intentions.
The group’s foreign ministers continued to meet after Biden’s victory, working to promote confidence-building measures between Israelis and Palestinians. The diplomats we spoke to emphasized that the group was not meant as a substitute for the Quartet, but as an attempt to fill the vacuum created during the Trump era. They believe that once the Quartet resumes its regular activity, the new forum will probably no longer be needed.
International groups have operated in various conflict areas around the world. The “contact group” led diplomatic moves regarding the conflicts in the Balkans and the Minsk Group worked to resolve the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Despite hopes that the Quartet would play a significant role in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, it turned to be a weak and insignificant force.
It is currently difficult to see any sense of urgency for a diplomatic initiative in the international community, especially considering the consensus that the chances of a breakthrough toward a permanent solution are very low in the current political conditions.
At the same time, there is a growing feeling in the international community that after years of stagnation in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, we are now experiencing a period of changes and developments at the domestic, regional and international levels that will affect the conflict.
These changes will require diplomatic adjustments and may provide new opportunities in peacemaking efforts. There is recently an international ripeness, that has not previously existed, for multilateral diplomacy and collaboration between international actors regarding the Israeli-Palestinian arena, and the Quartet could serve as a framework for this.
**The article was published on the Jerusalem Post, 12 May 2021.