published Thursday, July 14th, 2011

A failure to communicate

In the world of international diplomacy, some things are relatively easy to accomplish. Regularly reaffirming U.S.-Canadian ties is an example. Other issues — say, negotiating trade agreements with disparate international partners — represent an advanced level of difficulty. Some topics are so vexatious, though, that even the most experienced diplomats are given to despair when discussing them. Bringing peace to the Mideast certainly falls into the latter category.

Indeed, the current climate surrounding Mideast peace talks has become so frosty that diplomats from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — the so-called Quartet working together to facilitate negotiations and a settlement — are now squabbling among themselves. If those working to promote peace in the region can’t agree on how to proceed, what hope is there that Israelis and Palestinians, those most directly involved, can do so?

Quartet diplomats met in Washington earlier this week to talk about ways to prompt the two sides to restart talks. They apparently could not reach consensus on how to proceed. A U.S. State Department spokesman said that “quartet” representatives had nothing to announce that might push Israelis and Palestinians, who last met nine months ago, to resume face-to-face talks.

Neither participants nor the official spokesman would discuss what was said at the Quartet’s meeting or what issues might divide it, though the latter are likely to be more procedural than substantial. The Quartet publicly remains committed to bringing Palestinians and Israelis together and helping them to broker a peace arrangement acceptable to both.

That’s the problem. Finding a mutually agreeable basis for peace has proved elusive for years. The Palestinians want statehood and territorial guarantees. Israelis want Palestinians to publicly accept their nation as a “Jewish” state and to provide security guarantees that would support that acceptance. Political circumstances in both the Palestinian territories and Israel make those desires unlikely to become fact.

Israel’s powerful right wing makes it politically difficult for the government to publicly discuss ceding land in return for peace. The militant element in Palestinian political circles makes it impossible for moderate leaders to publicly discuss recognition of the Jewish state.

If the Quartet can’t promote renewed peace talks soon, the matter is likely to be taken out of its hands. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced plans to seek U.N. recognition of Palestine as an independent nation. Israel and its allies undoubtedly would mount vigorous opposition to that proposal. The resulting debate likely would create an international furor without resolving the major issues — statehood, territory, security — at the heart of the Mideast stalemate.

Direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks are preferable to that. All parties concerned should continue to pursue that goal.

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