Last Updated: Tue Jul 19, 2011 23:13 pm (KSA) 20:13 pm (GMT)

Michael Brenner: The Isosceles Quartet

Middle East quartet members Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-moon, Sergey Lavrov, Tony Blair and Lady Ashton at talks in Moscow. (File photo)
Middle East quartet members Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-moon, Sergey Lavrov, Tony Blair and Lady Ashton at talks in Moscow. (File photo)

The Middle East Quartet is an odd ensemble. It performs in public on only rare occasions. The players gather at irregular intervals in meetings devoted to deliberations on two matters: whether to perform together in public and, if they do, what score to follow; and to schedule their next meeting.

The Quartet’s public relations chief and advance man, Special Envoy Tony Blair, is distinguished by his deep unpopularity among prospective audiences. Most peculiar is that the ensemble’s leader and star player is a confirmed soloist who much prefers to take spotlight turns on the international circuit to making diplomatic music with his partners.

These singular features of the Middle East Quartet were on display at the group’s latest get together last week in Washington. It was ill starred. They could not agree even on a joint statement. Aiming to reach a consensus on an initiative to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, they were unable to succeed in that modest effort.

That objective in itself was a purely tactical ploy pressed by the United States to forestall the planned Palestinian move at the United Nations General Assembly in September to seek recognition of a Palestinian state. The Obama White House is straining mightily to prevent that occurring since its promises diplomatic embarrassment in revealing before an attentive world audience that Washington is in thrall to the Israeli government of Benyamin Netanyahu.

The American administration is so tied in knots that the readiness of the other three members of the Quartet to endorse Mr. Obama’s proposals advanced in his May address on the Middle East itself created complications. There, Obama urged that the pre-1967 borders be the reference point for negotiation of a territorial settlement. That standard formula was angrily rejected by Netanyahu – so Obama is now temporizing. He thus is uncomfortable with the Quartet’s endorsement.

Perhaps the Middle East Quartet should be renamed the Isosceles Quartet. Three members fiddle aimlessly while the prima donna upstages them at every turn.

(Professor Michael Brenner teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, and at the University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached at:

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