While the fighting in Gaza continued to rage Monday, the Quartet met at the UN, expressed “concern” over the violence, and – regarding the diplomatic process – called on the Israelis and Palestinians to “remain engaged” and “refrain from provocative actions.” The term “provocative action” is generally Quartet code for settlement construction.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon met at UN headquarters in New York City, joined via videoconference by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Quartet envoy Tony Blair.
Speaking at the UN Security Council on Monday, Clinton stressed that the US remains committed to seeing a Palestinian state emerge.
In recent weeks, the lack of progress in peace talks, the improvements in Iran’s nuclear program and the tumult in Syria and other countries touched by the Arab Spring – to which Clinton devoted most of her remarks – have pushed the Palestinian issue off the top of the agenda.
She attempted to reassure the Palestinians that the Quartet meeting was a step toward their goal of statehood. “President Obama and I have been consistent in our belief that the Palestinian people –like their Arab neighbors, Israelis, and all people – deserve dignity, liberty and the right to decide their own futures,” she said. “They deserve a viable, independent Palestine, alongside a secure Israel.”
Clinton emphasized that “the only way to get there is through a negotiated peace, one that cannot be dictated from outside and one we will continue to pursue through every productive avenue.” She then pointed to the Quartet meeting as such an avenue.
This type of high-level Quartet meeting has not been held since September 23, when the same officials met at the UN following Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s statehood bid and issued a statement outlining a framework for returning to talks.
That framework called for an initial meeting between the two sides within 30 days, leading to the trading of comprehensive proposals on security and territory within three months, and an overall agreement by the end of 2012.
Since that time, lower-level Quartet envoys have met a number of times, and low-level Israeli- Palestinian talks began in January in Jordan. The last Israeli-Palestinian meeting in Jordan was held at the end of January.
Palestinians have since said they would not renew talks unless Israel freezes settlement construction, agrees to start negotiations with a return to the pre-1967 lines as the baseline and is willing to release some Fatah prisoners.
Israel has said it is willing to renew the talks without preconditions, but that if Hamas joins the PA government – as was being discussed last month during the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks – it would cut off negotiations.
The statement issued Monday was obviously reflective of differences inside the Quartet – with Russia wanting the group to be much more assertive – and notably bland.
According to the statement, the meeting represented “informal consultations” to assess developments since the Quartet issued the framework for returning to talks.
“Quartet principles remain committed to the overall objectives of the [September 23] statement,” the latest communiqué read. “In this regard, they welcome the important effort led by Jordan, which began in early January, as part of the shared commitment to reach a negotiated agreement by the end of this year.
“The Quartet also discussed the grave situation in Gaza and southern Israel, expressed serious concern for the recent escalation and called for calm,” the statement continued. “The Quartet reiterates its call on the parties to remain engaged and to refrain from provocative actions.”
In her remarks at the UN, Clinton offered stronger criticism of the attacks on Israel, but also urged restraint on both sides.
“Let me also condemn in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel which continued over the weekend,” she said. “We call on those responsible to take immediate action to stop these attacks. We call on both sides – all sides – to make every effort to restore calm.”
Another meeting of the Quartet is scheduled for April in Washington.