The Palestinians on Thursday expressed frustration over the peace Quartet’s latest statement and insisted the settlement issue was central to resolving the conflict with Israel.
Top officials from the Middle East Quartet, representing the European Union, United States, Russia and United Nations, met Wednesday in Washington to address ways of hauling the two parties back to direct talks which ran aground 18 months ago.
But the meeting ended with a bland statement urging both sides to focus on “positive efforts” to bring about a resumption of direct talks.
Speaking to AFP, senior Palestinian official Nimr Hammad said the statement should have been “stronger and more assertive.”
“They know that the main obstacle facing peace in our region is settlement activity,” said Hammad, who is political adviser to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
“Israel has ignored all previous Quartet statements and the Quartet is aware of that, but asking the Palestinian side to get back to negotiations isn’t leading to a solution and peace in the region,” he said.
“What we need is to clearly ask Israel to stop its settlements which are the obstacle to negotiations and regional peace.”
Senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi took a much harder line, saying the Quartet statement, which made no reference to Israel’s ongoing occupation of the territories, demonstrated “a lack of will” to establish a Palestinian state.
“Unfortunately, the Quartet did not propose any specific policy measures or means of engagement required to create a breakthrough in the current crisis,” she said in a statement.
“The real issue is not ‘negotiations’ but rather ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land,” Ashrawi said.
“The glaring absence of any reference to this occupation portrays a lack of will to bring an end to it and to establish a viable Palestinian state.”
Wednesday’s statement expressed support for next week’s meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad, but made only a passing mention of “continued settlement activity” at the very end of the document.
“The Quartet welcomed plans for dialogue between the parties,” it said of the rare meeting at which Fayyad is to hand Netanyahu a letter from Abbas outlining his conditions for a resumption of talks, when they meet in Jerusalem on April 17.
The diplomats also stressed the need for continued international support for the Palestinian Authority’s institution-building efforts, and called on donors “to ensure the contribution of $1.1 billion in assistance” to meet the PA’s 2012 financing needs.
Although the call for funds to support the PA was welcome, it was political support that the Palestinians needed most, Hammad said.
“Economic support for the Palestinian people is important but political positions supporting its rights, the integrity of the two-state solution and stopping treating Israel as a state above the law, is more important,” he said.
The Quartet also condemned rocket attacks from Gaza, and made a passing mention of settlements.
“The Quartet expressed concern about unilateral and provocative actions by either party — including continued settlement activity — which cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations, the only way to a just and durable solution to the conflict.”
The Palestinians see the settlements as a major threat to the establishment of a viable state, and they view the freezing of settlement activity as a crucial test of Israel’s intentions vis-a-vis the peace process.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu said he would propose holding face-to-face negotiations with Abbas at next week’s meeting with Fayyad, but Hammad said it would not happen without a commitment to stop settlements.
Direct talks between the two sides collapsed just weeks after they were launched in September 2010 following a dispute over settlements.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held five exploratory meetings in January but failed to agree on the way forward, with next week’s talks between Netanyahu and Fayyad the first such high-level encounter in more than 18 months.