Obama Administration and ‘Quartet’ Partners Knock Israel but Sidestep Palestinians’ Statehood Bid at U.N.

By Patrick Goodenough | August 17, 2011 | 5:16 AM EDT

Representatives of the “Mideast Quartet” at an earlier meeting, in New York on September 21, 2010. From left they are Quartet special envoy Tony Blair, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. (U.N. Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration joined its “Mideast Quartet” partners Tuesday in a statement criticizing Israeli plans for new housing in disputed territory – but skirting around the Palestinian Authority’s looming bid for United Nations recognition of “Palestine.”

The U.S. and the international community say that Israeli construction in areas where the Palestinians hope to establish an independent state constitutes “unilateral action” by one side in the conflict – a bid to prejudge the outcome of a negotiated peace settlement.

Similarly, the U.S. and some Western democracies regard the P.A.’s plan to seek U.N. recognition next month to be a “unilateral action” by the conflict’s other party, an attempt to pre-empt a negotiated deal.

Tuesday’s meeting of the so-called Quartet – the U.S., Russia, European Union and U.N. – came five weeks ahead of the day that P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas plans to seek U.N. recognition of a state based on the boundaries that were in place before the 1967 Six Day War.

The only statement released by the grouping afterwards made no direct reference to Abbas’ diplomatic gambit, however.

Instead, it focused on two Israeli housing projects – one for 1,600 homes in a Jewish neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem, first announced 17 months ago, and the other for 277 homes in Ariel, a 33 year-old town of some 20,000 inhabitants in the West Bank north of Jerusalem.

“The Quartet is greatly concerned by Israel’s recent announcements to advance planning for new housing units in Ariel and East Jerusalem,” it said, referring back to a statement it had issued in March 2010, when the Jerusalem housing plans were first made public.

“The Quartet reaffirms that unilateral action by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community,” the statement continued, describing Jerusalem as “one of the core issues that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties.”

Among the other “core issues,” however – as defined by the drafters of the Oslo accords and reaffirmed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech last December – is the question of final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state, an issue that is directly connected to the U.N. recognition bid.

Riyad Mansour, the permanent observer of “Palestine” to the United Nations, addresses a Security Council meeting on October 18, 2010. (UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras)

Yet the closest the Quartet statement came to mentioning the U.N. maneuver was a sentence saying that, “Ultimately, it is up to Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make tough decisions and avoid actions by their governments that undermine the very goals they and we are trying to achieve.”

At Tuesday’s press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked why the Quartet referred to the Israeli housing issue but not the Palestinian U.N. plan.

She did not answer directly, saying merely that that the statement “is not a replacement for Quartet action on the larger question, which, as you know, has been designed to try to get the parties back to the table.”

“In the past, the Quartet has occasionally chosen to make statements on aspects of the issue, and they felt it was important – we felt it was important – at this stage to make a discrete statement on the settlement issue,” Nuland added. “But that doesn’t change the overall larger goal of the Quartet, which is to get the parties back to the table.”

She confirmed that the wording of the Quartet statement “represents the views of all members.”

Successive Israeli governments have ruled out a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, and most Israelis expect the future borders of a Palestinian state to exclude at least some of the more than 130 communities built on disputed territory over the past four decades, Ariel among them. The Israeli government also does not accept that any part of its capital city is a “settlement.”

Abbas last week told a delegation of U.S. lawmakers led by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) that he wants a Palestinian state empty of Jewish communities.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a symbolic resolution opposing any P.A. attempt to seek recognition outside of a bilaterally-negotiated agreement and urging the Obama administration to announce it will veto any such move in the Security Council.

Some conservatives, including former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, Heritage Foundation scholars Brett Schaefer and James Phillips, and Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, have urged the administration to respond to the P.A. plan by threatening a cutoff of funds to the U.N.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow