Quartet urges Israel settlement freeze

The world sponsors of the Middle East peace process urged Israel to extend its settlement freeze after Palestinians warned the thorny issue could derail fledgling peace talks.

The Quartet, comprised of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly as Israeli and Palestinians held talks in an effort to defuse the crisis.

"The Quartet noted that the commendable Israeli settlement moratorium instituted last November has had a positive impact and urged its continuation," it said in a statement after its representatives met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

It also urged both sides to "promote an environment conducive to progress, including by refraining from provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric."

The Middle East Quartet principals, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L), US special envoy George Mitchell (2nd L), UN special envoy Tony Blair (3rd L), EU's Catherine Ashton (4th L), UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (3rd R) and Russian FM Sergey Lavrov (R) meet at the UN

A planned press conference following the meeting was nevertheless called off at the last minute with officials citing an electricity cut as the reason.

The dispute over the settlements has threatened to undermine the fledgling efforts by the United States to revive the Middle East peace talks after their official launch in Washington last month following a nearly two-year hiatus.

Shortly before the Quartet meeting, a spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who is in New York for talks, said the next 10 days will be key for the future of the Middle East peace talks.

"The next 10 days will be decisive and determine the fate of the direct negotiations with Israel," Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.

"There is a very large international effort made to overcome the obstacles in the way of direct negotiations. In particular, the obstacle of the settlements," he said.

The Palestinians have repeatedly demanded that Israel extend a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, which expires next week.

Abbas said after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel that "the world must understand our need to halt settlement activity."

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused to extend the partial ban despite the urging of US President Barack Obama. He has hinted, however, he would confine building to major settlement blocs.

"We said there would be no preconditions (to starting talks,) so you can't come after five minutes with conditions," Netanyahu said Tuesday, referring to Abbas's threat.

Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon told AFP that the two sides should find a "middle of the road" solution, but that ultimately the future of the settlements will be decided by the borders of the future Palestinian state.

Abbas and senior Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, are in the United States for talks on the peace process.

Netanyahu's top advisor Yitzhak Molkho and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat held talks in New York earlier on Tuesday, according to an Israeli official.

The deadline for the end of the freeze is widely accepted as September 26, 10 months and a day after the original cabinet decision expires. But a military order regarding the moratorium states it will only close on October 1.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell said last week that talks between Israelis and Palestinians had made "progress" on the settlements issue.

He also said the two leaders again tackled the issues at the heart of their decades-old conflict -- Israel's security, the borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Some 500,000 Israelis live in more than 120 Jewish settlements across the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories expected to form the bulk of a future Palestinian state.

In the meantime, the committee coordinating international funds to support the Palestinian Authority's institutions and economy said that a new international donor conference will be announced later this year.

source AFP

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