Analysis: The Quartet’s changing perspective

With the Arab world now preoccupied with its own turmoil, “bolder steps” to foster positive relations with Israel seems... like a pipe dream.

Quartet (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
The Middle East that the Quartet representatives will be discussing Saturday in Munich is a vastly different region than the one they discussed at their last meeting in September in New York.
Then, the major issue facing the Quartet officials – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon – was whether or not Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would renew the 10-month settlement moratorium.
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That issue now seems like petty change in comparison to the chaos in Cairo and the uncertainty it is casting over the entire region, let alone the Israeli- Palestinian diplomatic process.
When the Quartet’s senior officials meet, they generally issue a statement afterward. And, as usually happens in these meetings – as well as in the periodic meetings of EU foreign ministers – the statement is often just a roll-over of statements from previous meetings, with some tweaking here and there depending on what is happening on the ground.
One wonders, therefore, whether the Quartet will insert the following paragraph, taken from its last statement in September, into the statement that will be issued from Munich: “In the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative, the Quartet called on Arab States to support Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and progress on the other tracks by taking bolder steps to foster positive relations throughout the region and to combat violence and extremism.”
With the Arab world now preoccupied with its own turmoil, “bolder steps” to foster positive relations with Israel seems... well, like a pipe dream.
If the Saudi king would not let Israeli civilian planes fly over his airspace on the way to Thailand as a goodwill gesture before the Arab world was in foment, it is difficult to believe he will do so now. Neither the Saudi King nor Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has exactly nourished a culture of acceptance and tolerance toward Israel and Jews among the Arab masses who are now very much on the move and on the rise.
One of the elements of the diplomatic process that US envoy George Mitchell has been trying to push forward for months was a regional component – getting the Arab countries to support the Israeli-Palestinian process. Part of the rationale for this was the feeling that the Palestinians would only be willing to make concessions if they got a strong backwind of support from the Arab world.
And one of the key players in providing this back-wind was Mubarak. Egypt, under Mubarak, was – for various reasons, including the preservation of its relationship with the US – very supportive of the diplomatic process and of the Palestinian Authority.
If Mubarak’s ouster ushers in a government that is either neutral or negative toward the process, that would signify a dramatic shift.
It is no coincidence that so many Middle East parleys over the last few years were held in Sharm e-Sheikh under Mubarak’s auspices. It was important for everyone involved to get Egypt – that most important, powerful and influential of Arab countries – to place its umbrella over the process.
It is also not coincidental that Israeli leaders made a point of meeting Mubarak regularly – it was important to have him on board, and he was a key conduit for relaying messages to other Arab leaders.
And it is no coincidence that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with Mubarak repeatedly. He looked to Mubarak for legitimacy in negotiating with Israel.
But if Mubarak is gone, and his successor is lukewarm or negative toward the process, from where will Abbas derive this legitimacy? From Syria? From Lebanon? From Saudi Arabia? Mubarak’s Egypt played an important role in supporting the more pragmatic elements in the Arab world, and – again out of self-interest – provided real support in the struggle against Hamas. Mubarak helped isolate the extremists, supported a two-state solution and created an alternative narrative in the Arab world.
If an Egypt emerges that is not part of the so-called “peace camp,” it is hard to imagine that Jordan – or the Palestinians – would go it alone. If Egypt is not in this camp, then who in the Arab world will serve as a counterbalance to Iran? There will surely be a tendency among the Quartet representatives Saturday to issue a statement saying that the events in Egypt just prove the need to redouble efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
But one hopes that behind closed doors, the Quartet representatives will also go beyond the predictable platitudes and realize that the events in Egypt raise serious questions about some of the key pillars upon which the whole process rests.