Mideast "quartet" envoy Tony Blair said that "some people… (Muhammad Hamed, Reuters )
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 United Nations — will discuss the latest approach during separate meetings Wednesday in Jerusalem and 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 has 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 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 from. 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?