Time is running out is a phrase so overused in diplomacy that it has ceased to have any meaning. Nowhere more so than in the Middle East, when last chance saloons and final chances have come and gone with the regularity of political promises of peace talks.
Nothing has happened and nothing appears still to be happening after the Quartet of the UN, US, Russia and the EU met in Washington at the beginning of this week and found itself unable to issue even an anodyne statement at the end. Few in the Middle East were surprised. The Quartet, set up in 2002 when Europe and the US were anxious to give the appearance of doing something about Palestine whilst invading Iraq and throwing the politics of the whole Middle East into chaos, has managed to do virtually nothing in its nine years of life except to appoint Tony Blair as its representative.
Not that there weren`t hopes that, this time round, things might get moving again. The Palestinians were hopeful, and the Israelis fearful, that the Quartet might take up President Obama`s recent speech declaring that any peace deal should be based on the pre-1967 boundaries. The EU, represented by the increasingly feeble-looking Baroness Ashton and galvanised by the ever-hyperactive French President, certainly wanted a blueprint announced to get preliminary talks going.
There is a deadline,however. The Palestinian threat to go to the UN in September and demand recognition as a separate state has proved the one diplomatic weapon in their armoury that has unnerved the Israeli government and upset the Americans. Both of whom – with some European support – are doing their utmost to head it off on the tired old grounds that it is `unproductive`.
All the more reason, one might argue, for the Palestinians to press ahead. At least this way they can force the international community to take note of them. And at least this way the embattled Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, can show to his own people that something is happening.
Without this, it has to be said, nothing at all is going to be done to help the Palestinians move towards statehood. Israel`s right-wing coalition, headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, is pressing ahead with settlements and has dismissed outright any talk of retreating to 1967 borders. The violence between settlers and the Palestinians, whose land they are taking and crops they are destroying, is escalating. Obama talks the talk of peace but every time it comes to it, the US (as Israel well knows) draws back from confronting its closest ally. What else is Palestine supposed to do other than try and regain the initiative?
Some of the cards are beginning to come up in its favour. The evolution of policy in Turkey towards a more pro-Palestinian stance, the change in regime in Egypt, the stuttering reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, the shaking of Middle Eastern autocracies in the Arab Spring, are all potentially helpful to its cause.
Forcing a vote in the UN doesn`t bring about peace negotiations, of course. But, given the present nature of the Israeli government, that does not appear to be on the cards. If the Palestinians can feel themselves a little more empowered, that may do more for a just settlement between equals – which has been the one essential ingredient lacking so far – than all the efforts of the outside world.
As for the Quartet, it stands – or rather totters – as a grim example of just how bereft the international community is of any real leadership or imagination at present. If the gathering in Washington last Monday was to have achieved anything, it could only have done so by issuing a firm statement outlining what the international community expected from a peace settlement and what it was prepared to do to support it. Instead we had the silence of impotency.
Now Malaysia springs into action
We all knew that the Arab Spring was spreading beyond the Middle East. Even Georgia, that beacon of US hopes of a pro-western democracy spreading into Russia, has had protests against corruption and demands for regime change.
But the biggest surprise so far must be last weekend`s protests in Malaysia. Over 20,000 came out on to the streets of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. A total of 1,667 were arrested. Fortunately only one was killed, from a heart attack say the authorities (shades of Ian Tomlinson). But the turnout was quite extraordinary by Malaysian standards – this is a state that has kept a heavy lid on opposition and criticism, including, it is alleged, employing a male prostitute to entrap its leading opponent.
`They said,` pronounced the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, in a statement worthy of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, `they wanted to hold a peaceful rally. If the police had not monitored it, it would not have been peaceful.`
Participants and bystanders on the ground reported a rather different picture, of tear gas canisters being fired directly into the crowds, protesters kicked by the police as they fell and cars driven right into them.
Will it lead anywhere? It is hard to see Malaysia, with its high growth rate and a government enjoying public support in the opinion polls (at least until now), going the way of Tunisia.
But you can`t tell. The point about the protest movements around the world is not that they have a single pattern but that they represent a tectonic shifting of the political plates. Everywhere, democratic and authoritarian, Muslim, Christian and secular, people seem to be tired of the old systems of rule. But how regimes respond varies hugely.