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Mideast ‘quartet’ tries new approach with Israel, Palestinians

October 26, 2011 |  3:00 am

Tony Blair
REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Frustrated in its bid to restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the international group known as the Mideast quartet is pushing both sides to submit detailed proposals for borders of a Palestinian state and measures to ensure Israel’s long-term security, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday.

Blair, who serves as envoy for the quartet  — consisting of the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — will discuss the latest approach during separate meetings Wednesday in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah.

In September, the quartet called for an immediate resumption of direct negotiations with no preconditions, during which borders and security issues would have been tackled first. But Palestinians refused to return to talks without an agreement by Israel to freeze construction of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Now the quartet will seek the border and security proposals first to gauge whether direct talks are feasible, Blair said.

In an interview with The Times, Blair also said he had no plans to step down from his post, despite recent accusations by some Palestinians that he favors Israel.

Almost no one thinks direct talks can be renewed in the current environment, so what are you hoping to achieve with these meetings?

We want to get agreement where detailed proposals on borders and security would be put forward within the 90-day period that the quartet statement stipulated. This is a preliminary meeting to see if it’s possible to get that to happen. Once we see where the detailed proposals are on an issue like borders, then we can see how big the division is.

This sounds a little like we’re moving back into indirect, or proximity, talks, with the quartet as a go-between.

It’s not quite proximity talks, but it is more that we need to see if there’s a basis for negotiation. If you come out with proposals and there’s a vast gap between the two sides’ position, you may conclude that it’s not possible.

Has either side provided the quartet with a detailed proposal yet?

The Palestinians, of course, did table a proposal in the last talks that they had in Annapolis [Maryland in 2008 during the George W. Bush administration]. They were detailed, significant proposals, on borders, at least, in and around land swaps. This Israeli government has not produced such a proposal, and that’s obviously one thing we have to explore with them.

Any signs that they will submit something?

We’ll have to see.

There are reports of a U.S. proposal floating around in which Israel would privately agree to a partial settlement freeze on new construction outside existing West Bank settlement boundaries and in East Jerusalem. Is that a possibility?

I’m sure the issue of settlement will come under discussion because it’s a major question. The real problem for Palestinians is that they get into detailed discussions with Israel and then you get a major settlement announcement, which is by its nature a provocative act. So we said in the [September] quartet statement that people should avoid provocative acts.

The quartet’s credibility has been questioned because you’ve called upon Israel to halt settlements and yet construction continues. You’ve demanded Palestinians return to talks and they refuse. You ask both sides to refrain from provocative actions and they politely ignore you. It seems as if no one is listening to the quartet.

In the end, all the quartet is is the international community in a manageable form. There is no other body that allows this process to be managed sensibly by the key stakeholders.

But are there any enforcement teeth behind your demands or any price to pay for saying ‘no’ to the quartet? What happens if one or both sides fail to submit proposals on borders and security in the next three months?

You can’t impose something on the parties that they are not prepared to do. We can try to create a framework from which they can move forward. If we are able to get detailed proposals on the two most sensitive issues, that’s significant progress.

And if they don’t, will the quartet apply pressure or punishment?

You can pressure and cajole and persuade. There’s no way you can punish.

The quartet consists of four major powers that could punish the sides politically, financially, diplomatically.

Sure, but they have to be in agreement as to who is to blame.

Let’s talk about that. The quartet members these days are looking as deadlocked as the Israelis and Palestinians. For months the body has been unable to approve a statement framing its position on the core issues, such as borders, refugees, East Jerusalem as a capital and Israel as a Jewish state. How can the quartet propel the process if it can’t agree itself?

We came quite close in New York, actually [at the September quartet meeting], to agreeing on the parameters, but we couldn’t bridge the remaining gap.

Again, it sounds like the Israelis and the Palestinians. What was the problem?

I won’t go into the details because it won’t be helpful. But we came a long way, and I think it’s perfectly possible to get agreement at a certain point. It may be easier to do once we see where the two parties come out on the key issues. The most frustrating thing about the Israel-Palestinian issue is not that it’s so hard to see what the solution is. The most frustrating thing is that it’s reasonably easy to see what the solution is. If you ask most international leaders today, ‘Sum up, in a minute, what is your basic ballpark solution to this,’ they will come up with the same solution.

OK, sum up, in a minute, your basic ballpark solution to this.

Not helpful for me to do that. There may come a point, but not right now. But the fact is, you could. That is what makes it radically different from the Northern Ireland situation, where the gap is still huge and yet you manage to have a peace process.

Here, for example, Palestinians say, “1967 borders with land swaps.” The Israelis say, “Yes, 1967 borders, but it’s bound to be different from 1967 because of the land swaps.” You work out what the difference is in those two positions, because I can’t.

Some say now is the time for the U.S. or the quartet to put forward its own detailed solution, based on the elements you say every international leader already supports.

We are trying to put forth a set of parameters and came quite close, but you have to choose your moments, and we are not at that point.

You’ve been criticized over allegations that you lobbied to push through Palestinian contracts awarded to a cellphone carrier and gas company who were clients of JP Morgan, which hires you as an advisor. Is there a conflict of interest?

No. I don’t know anyone here who seriously believes that. There’s a section of the British media that go after me all the time. By the way, I’ve never discussed any of this with JP Morgan. I had no idea they had a connection to any of these things. [The contracts for cellphone provider] Wataniya and British Gas are long-standing demands of the Palestinians.

Some Palestinian leaders have publicly called for you to step down as envoy, saying you are not an honest broker and show bias toward Israel. Fair or not, can you still effectively function in the job if one side appears to have lost confidence in your objectivity?

You get criticism from both sides. That’s not important. What’s important is to keep trying to find a way through. The single worst thing that could happen now is if we said we should disintegrate the negotiating process. The consequences would be very severe. Some people on both sides don’t like the fact that the quartet is trying to corral people back into negotiations, but that’s our job. Frankly, one of the reasons I’m a little more controversial in this thing now is that since July I’ve been stepping into some of the political minefields.

You are taking a more active role in the peace process? Is that because the U.S. is stepping back?

The U.S. is still very much there, but it’s also saying to the international community, "You’ve got to step up with us here.” If this situation deteriorates, you are going to have a major problem in the region. However difficult or frustrating it gets for me — and this is my 72nd visit here in four years — I do it because I think it’s of profound importance to the region and to our security.

So you are not going away?

Correct.

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-- Edmund Sanders

Photo: Mideast quartet envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at United Nations headquarters Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. Credit: Associated Press

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