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`Quartet' backs revived Middle East peace efforts

The four world powers support new U.S.-led talks, but some members differ on strategy details.

February 03, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A group of world powers Friday blessed the latest American effort to restart the Middle East peace process, but not before signaling that divisions remained among its members.

The so-called quartet -- comprising the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia -- released a statement expressing support for a round of U.S.-led talks due to begin this month. It also reaffirmed its support for an economic boycott of the Palestinian government until the ruling Hamas movement agrees to foreswear violence and recognize Israel.

But in private talks, European officials signaled that they wanted to move faster than the Americans toward a deal to create a Palestinian state, diplomats said. And the Russian delegation urged the group to lift its economic boycott of the Palestinian government, saying the measure punished ordinary Palestinians without forcing Hamas to reform.

The new U.S. effort is based on the idea that progress toward peace can be accelerated by sketching the outlines of a final peace deal, the hope being that giving the Palestinians a glimpse of their "political horizon" would motivate them to make the sacrifices needed to get there.

This approach would allow the Palestinians and Israelis to temporarily bypass the initial requirements set out in the step-by-step "road map" to peace originally laid out by the quartet, conditions now seen as an impediment to progress. These steps, to which both sides agreed, include disarming Palestinian militant groups and clearing residents from illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank.

But in recent discussions, it has become clear that some European and Arab governments want to put more emphasis on working toward a final deal, whereas the United States and Israel stress that the initial steps must not be completely neglected. Israeli officials argue that if the first-stage requirements are not met, neither the Israeli public nor the Palestinians will accept their leaders' eventual deal.

Some European and Arab officials fear that if tangible progress is not made within the next few months, the approach of the American presidential election and deepening international conflict over Iran's nuclear program could again put the talks in a deep freeze.

"We are all happy about the opportunity we have before us, but it is important to take it," a European diplomat said.

Germany, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, has been pushing to make the quartet more influential in the peace discussions. Although the United States has been eager to win its partners' support, the quartet's meetings have been infrequent and its role secondary.

At a news conference in Washington, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was pleased the quartet had made plans to meet again after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sits down with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this month.

"We can only be credible if this becomes a long-term, sustainable process," he said.

American officials have been pushing for the new talks in part to solidify support for the United States among Sunni Arab governments in the Middle East, whose backing Washington badly needs in its efforts to stabilize Iraq and challenge Iran.

They also hope that progress in the talks will strengthen Abbas in his struggle against Hamas.

Yet most observers say the effort faces long odds, in part because of the precarious political position of Olmert and Abbas.

In their statement, the quartet members expressed "deep concern" about the latest fighting in the Palestinian territories between Hamas and Fatah, Abbas' movement.

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it would be tricky for the Palestinians and Israelis to rough out a peace plan with the right amount of detail.

"The question is, will this 'political horizon' be in high definition, or will it be so blurry that it's meaningless?" he said. "You want it to have enough resolution that it can give people a sense of drive and focus, but not so much that it will enable opponents of these leaders to pick it apart. It's unclear you can strike a balance like that."

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