The Obama administration has been engaged in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to persuade the Palestinians to halt their drive for member-state status at the United Nations. Its latest idea centers around a Middle East Quartet statement that would define the timelines for a beginning and an end to a new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Acting Special Envoy David Hale and NSC Senior Director Dennis Ross have been in the region this week, meeting with everybody from Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and many others. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has been in the Middle East as well, meeting with officials on both sides and with the U.S. envoys.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been personally involved in the effort. She called Abbas late last week, Ashton on Monday, and Quartet leader Tony Blair on Tuesday.
However, the administration has thus far failed to convince Abbas to halt his statehood drive at the United Nations. "We are going to the Security Council," Abbas said today in Ramallah, setting up a showdown in New York next week that would lead to a U.S. veto. Abbas and Netanyahu are set to give dueling speeches at the U.N. on Friday, Sept. 23.
Behind the scenes, the U.S. and European governments are still working hard to find a path out of this impending diplomatic crisis. According to U.S. officials, European officials, and experts close to the process, the Western powers are considering a new statement from the Middle East Quartet, which is made up of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia. Two key items under negotiation are language referring to the Jewish character of Israel and a U.S. proposal to add timelines to the statement calling for new negotiations.
"The timelines are an idea that the Americans have presented," former Congressman Robert Wexler told The Cable. Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, just returned from a four-day trip in the region, where he met with officials on all sides.
The idea is that a new Quartet statement would specify that new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would begin within four to six weeks -- with a specified end date, either in six months or a year.
"The Palestinians seemed open to it," Wexler said, cautioning that no side had made any commitments to support such a statement. "The Israelis are less excited about the timeline, but they understand the Palestinians can't just have an open timeframe."
If and when the Quartet members can agree on a new statement, there are a number of possibilities about what could happen next. The American hope is that the Quartet statement would be enough for the Palestinians to forego their U.N. bid. Or, if the Palestinians were to submit their bid to the U.N. Security Council but not press for a vote, the issue could be tabled while all sides tried to implement the plan in the new statement.
The Europeans, meanwhile, foresee a path whereby the new Quartet statement could be incorporated into the Palestinian resolution to be introduced at the U.N. General Assembly, if the Palestinians decide to go that route, a European diplomat said.
For Ashton and the Europeans, the General Assembly route represents a compromise, as it would give the Palestinians increased recognition as a non-member observer, short of full statehood status. Ashton has therefore also been negotiating with the Palestinians on a potential resolution in the General Assembly, in the hopes of watering it down as much as possible.
"The day after a Security Council vote, it looks much worse than the day after a General Assembly vote," the European diplomat said.
But for the Obama administration, even a General Assembly vote elevating the Palestinian's status is a non-starter.
"We've tried to have these discussions with [the Obama administration], but they won't talk about it," the European diplomat said about the General Assembly resolution, speculating that the White House is prioritizing its domestic political need to defend the Netanyahu administration. "Maybe from the White House perspective, the more they are isolated with Israel, the better."
Meanwhile, all sides are involved in negotiating over language in the proposed Quartet statement that would acknowledge the Jewish character of the State of Israel. In July, the Quartet got stuck on the Obama administration's insistence that the words "Jewish state" be contained in the resolution. This time, various other formulations are being floated. One of them is to use the phrase, "two states for two peoples, one for the Jewish people and one for the Palestinian people."
The European diplomat said he perceived a break between the White House, which is prioritizing its need to appear strongly aligned with Israel, and the State Department, which is focused more on the fallout around the Arab world that would follow a U.S. veto of Palestinian statehood.
Wexler said such internal differences were natural but that, in the end, President Barack Obama was driving U.S. policy.
"Different parts of the government have different goals," Wexler said. "You have offense, defense, and special teams. They all do different things."
Regardless, the perception in Europe is that the Obama administration is constrained by domestic politics, and that another timeline for negotiations -- an idea that didn't work before -- isn't likely to work this time either.
"This shows how little room the Obama administration has to maneuver," the European diplomat said. "It's a typical Dennis Ross way of getting into procedure when you don't want to get into substance."
Former Middle East Negotiator Aaron David Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, said that any new Quartet statement would have to have more key elements in order to be worthwhile.
"You would need it to say '1967 borders with swaps' and you would need a significant settlement freeze while the negotiations would take place," he said.
The next few days will be crucial, Miller said, and the sign of success would be if Clinton takes up the issue and applies her own diplomatic power to making the new Quartet statement a key part of the diplomacy.
"Over the next three or four days, the sign this got serious would be the secretary of State getting involved in it," he said. "We're still a long way from knowing with any certainty how real this is."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.