Overshadowed by the crisis in Egypt, the Middle East Quartet took an important step last weekend to try to revive the seemingly moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
It's not so much what the Quartet, comprising the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States, did after their Feb. 5 meeting in Munich that was so important. It was more what they did not do.
By declining to endorse a Palestinian drive for a unilateral declaration of independence within 1967 borders, the negotiators signaled strongly to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stop wasting his energy on achieving meaningless public relations coups and get back to the negotiating table.
Abbas walked out of the talks last September and is refusing to return unless Israel first permanently halt all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - a move Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not possibly take, even if he wanted to, without bringing down his coalition government. In almost two decades of direct negotiations, Palestinians had never made a settlement freeze a precondition for their participation.
Most Israelis recognize they will have to make painful concessions to achieve peace, including evacuating tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank. But nobody believes in offering such concessions before the talks actually begin. The issues are difficult and complex and it will take courage, patience, determination and persistence from both sides to reach an agreement.
Instead of taking difficult this path, Abbas has instead been focusing on winning international recognition for a possible unilateral declaration of independence and a vote in the United Nations General Assembly in September recognizing the existence of a Palestinian state on all territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem captured by Israel in 1967.
Several Latin American countries and a couple in Europe have issued statements recognizing such a state, even though such declarations are hardly worth the paper they are printed on in the absence of a true peace agreement between the parties. However, Abbas seemed encouraged enough to continue this public relations strategy rather than return to the table.
In its statement, the Quartet "emphasized the need for the parties and others concerned to undertake urgently the efforts to expedite Israeli-Palestinian and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, which is imperative to avoiding outcomes detrimental to the region."
The most important sentence in the statement said, "Unilateral actions by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community."
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said the statement was disappointing. "We expected the Quartet, in such exceptional circumstances in the region, to live up to the event by asking Israel to stop all settlement activity, including in al-Quds (Jerusalem) and to recognize the 1967 borders as borders of a Palestinian state with its capital in East al-Quds.
"It seems that some members of the Quartet are still unaware that the threat to the region comes from the Israeli occupation, which poses a threat to the entire region and to world peace and must be ended," he said.
On the contrary, the Quartet recognized that talk is easy but talks are tough. They underscored that only negotiations can solve end the occupation and solve the problem. Their unequivocal message to the Palestinians was clear: Stop wasting time and get back to the table. Hopefully, Abbas, Erekat and their colleagues will take note.