10 January 2009

The ingredient missing from Gaza: mediation

By Marguerite Finn

Acres of print have been devoted to the plight of the citizens of Gaza and the disproportionate actions of the Israeli Government, which places the latter squarely in breach of the 4th Geneva Convention and international humanitarian law. However, little has been said about the failure of mediation by members of the Quartet – Europe, US, Russia, and the UN – or what might account for this.

The current attacks on Gaza are being presented as though Israel suddenly lost patience with the Hamas government, when the six-month 'cease fire' expired on 19 December, and decided to wage war.

But it didn't happen quite like that.

Aware that 'regime change' in Washington would take place in early 2009 and desirous of one taking place in Gaza before that happened, Israel formulated a PR strategy designed to win broad international support for its forthcoming actions in Gaza. A new body, known as the National Information Directorate, was set up eight months ago to 'sell' the Israeli position. The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said his government knew exactly what was coming: "The signs that Israel was determined to strike Hamas in Gaza were clear for the past three months. They practically wrote it in the sky". But the international community failed to act on the signs. Why?

To find out the answer, we are fortunate to have access to the End of Mission Report (2007), written by Alvaro de Soto, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Envoy to the Quartet, a job that put him right at the heart of things and should have guaranteed him access to all the main players. However, he found his efforts to speak to representatives of Hamas and Syria blocked for reasons he was never fully given. De Soto believed that contacts with Hamas, Syria, Iran and Turkey were vital to bring about peace but his report shows how America's blind support for Israel continually hindered efforts to broker a peace deal and how the Quartet failed to hold Israel to its obligations under the Road Map or UN Resolutions.

When Hamas won an overwhelming victory in the Palestinian elections in January 2006, De Soto tried to influence the Quartet to adopt a common, constructive approach to the new government. Hamas wanted to establish a broad-based government including members of the defeated Fatah party. This might have been achievable within a month had the US not led the Quartet to set impossible demands and opposed a National Unity Government in principle.

De Soto argued that the UN was best fitted to open a channel of dialogue with Hamas and that the Quartet should collectively register its concern about Israel's creation of conditions on the ground, which impinged on the achievability of a future Palestinian state, but, as he noted in his report: "Predictably I was unsuccessful in these endeavours; hence the punitive tone of the statement issued on 30 January 2006, which effectively transformed the Quartet from a negotiating-promoting foursome guided by a common document (The Road Map) into a body that was all-but imposing sanctions on a freely elected government of a people under occupation, as well as setting unattainable preconditions for dialogue."

Another interesting fact to emerge from his report was America's influence in fostering what De Soto calls a culture of "self-censorship" within the UN when it comes to criticism of Israel. Because of this the Quartet gradually lost its impartiality. In his words: "The fact is, that even-handedness has been pummelled into submission in an unprecedented way since the beginning of 2007."

This is why mediation by the Quartet did not work then and cannot work now.

Handicapped by their self-imposed ban on communication with Hamas, international 'power-brokers' found themselves without a presence in Gaza and consequently had no influence to prevent the descent towards war. UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, recently admitted to the UN Security Council in New York, that the Gaza crisis "is an indictment of our collective failure – all of us – over a long period."

Could this be a sign of a new realism and a signal of the UK's desire instead to be part of Obama's 'change'? We must wait and see.

It is to be hoped that the UN will extract itself from its disastrous involvement with the Quartet and play a truly independent role in the region. It is to be hoped too that a new breed of diplomats from neighbouring countries like Turkey, Quatar, Egypt and Syria will broker a peaceful and satisfactory solution to the Israel-Palestine question. The Quartet had its chance at mediation and it blew it.

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