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21 Mar, 2010 19:17

Middle East Quartet urges talks, calls on Israel to freeze settlement activity

The Middle East Quartet mediators have called on Israel to freeze settlement activity in East Jerusalem. They have also urged the sides to return to the negotiation table.

Following the Quartet’s ministerial session in Moscow, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that Israel should refrain from demolishing buildings and from evicting people currently living in East Jerusalem.

He also said that the Quartet calls on both sides to “refrain from provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric, especially in areas of cultural and religious sensitivity,” and maintain calm and restraint.

The Quartet has also called on the sides to resume indirect talks, and then pass on to direct peace consultations. The Quartet expressed assurance that the talks will lead to the settlement of the situation within 24 months and will result in the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state.

According to the Palestinian side, resumption of the dialogue is only possible providing Israel stops its settlement activities.

“Yes, freeze settlement activities for several months, but completely and everywhere. And if [Israel] says: ‘We agree with the borders of 1967’, we will go to the talks and resume them,” Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told Itar-Tass news agency.

“Israel must stop settlement activities for a certain period of time. We do not say forever, but for several months. And when it stops them, we will begins the talks,” he added.

According to Israel, though, the Quartet timetable for the settlement does not look feasible.

“You cannot force peace artificially, in an unrealistic timetable,” Israel’s Ynetnews service quoted the country’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as saying.

“Such announcements only distance the goal of achieving a true settlement between Israel and Palestinians by giving the Palestinian side the false impression that feet dragging and refusal to sit at the negotiations table under false pretense will bring them closer to their goal,” he added.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Sunday that Israel will not restrict construction in East Jerusalem.

"Our policy on Jerusalem is the same policy followed by all Israeli governments for the past 42 years, and it has not changed,” he said. “From our viewpoint, building in Jerusalem is the same as building in Tel Aviv."

The Quartet’s latest decisions should be matched by concrete actions to make Israel comply, Fatah’s commissioner for international relations, Nabil Shaath, told RT.

“We need to see some action that will make these statements be implemented,” he said. “That is what Palestinians are waiting for.”

The Quartet meeting – attended by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton – was set to discuss how to make the peace process in the Middle East work.

Peace talks have been exacerbated by a recent stand-off over Israeli expansion in Arab East Jerusalem, which led to US Vice President Joe Biden cutting his Israel visit short, as well as the overnight airstrikes on targets in Gaza.

Israeli aircraft fired several missiles at tunnels near the town of Rafah and a metal workshop in Gaza, according to officials. It was in response to a Palestinian rocket attack on southern Israel that killed a Thai man on Thursday. That strike from within Gaza came despite a Hamas ban on rocket attacks.

Following Israeli action on Friday, protesters in the West Bank city of Hebron threw rocks at Israeli security forces, which fired tear gas in response. On Sunday, the Israeli military said that troops in the West Bank had shot dead two Palestinians after they attempted to stab Israeli soldiers.

Violence escalates amid tensions over Israel’s decision to build 1,600 apartments in East Jerusalem. In turn, Hamas issued statements, urging Palestinians to protest over Israel's actions in Jerusalem.

US and Israel at odds

What we see now is actually a complete halt in relations between Washington and Tel Aviv. Recent reports say that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had a phone conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu this morning from Moscow. The Israeli PM promised that he will come up with some confidence-building measure, though he did not specify what kind of measures he was talking about.

The US State Department also announced plans to send an envoy to Israel, despite earlier officially postponing the visit.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was actually among the first to react to Israeli plans on 1600 new housing projects in East Jerusalem. She called the plans “insulting” to the US.

“The fact is that Israel has frozen building in settlements for 10 months,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Spokesman Shahar Arieli in response to the Quartet’s urge to stop Israeli expansion of settlements.

The official pointed out that the international community attaches too much importance to Israel’s latest plan to build homes in East Jerusalem while missing on some moves from the Palestinians.

“The building will not start for at least three years. This is not the main issue”, says Shahar Arieli.

The spokesperson notes that recently a square in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the central West Bank, has been inaugurated in the name of a Palestinian terrorist – a message which has not raised international concerns.

Shahar Arieli added that, according to a number of opinion polls, Israel enjoys a high level of support of the American population and is confident about its bilateral relations with the US.

“We are not afraid of the relations between Israel and the United States. In the base of the relationship between Israel and the United states lies friendship and shared values. We are working in tight coordination with the United States. Both Israel and the United States have the same interest, which is going into direct negotiations with the Palestinians and trying to resolve the conflict,” noted Shahar Arieli.

Russia’s role

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised highly Russia’s role in the Middle East peace process.

“We need Russia’s engagement and leadership in the modern world. I applaud Russia’s contribution. The UN depends on Russia,” Ban Ki-moon said.

Russia is attempting to become an alternative peacemaker in the Middle East process, and its policy of dialogue appears to succeed in that. Russia is trying to pursue a policy in which all sides of the conflict being involved. For example, Russia is the only one within the Quartet which both engages and recognizes Hamas as a democratically elected political force, something Moscow is constantly criticized for. Yet such a policy has given results.

A month ago, both Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Khaled Mashal, the leader of the radical Palestinian party Hamas, visited Moscow to discuss the disputed territories.

Today, Moscow is expected to push through its stance and campaign a Moscow peace conference – an idea already supported by both the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

There is some possibility that Russia might be able to influence the Middle East peace process, George Mason University professor Mark Katz told RT.

“I think the argument that Russia has made is that Russia can talk to Israel, Fatah and Hamas, whereas the US really can’t talk to Hamas,” he said. “Merely being able to talk to everyone does not mean you can actually get them to agree, but maybe there is some possibility.”

Experts say

The whole perception of Israel’s actions have changed over the last year with the Goldsmith report on the Lebanon war being published and the recent scandal with the Israeli leadership openly insulting US Vice President Joe Biden while the latter was on an official visit to Jerusalem, told RT Jeremy Corbyn, a British Member of Parliament from the Labour Party, adding that “the whole dynamic of the Quartet will change.”

Corbyn, who visited Israel a month ago and personally met representatives of both sides of the conflict, said that “If you want to bring peace you have to talk to everybody, including Hamas and Fatah and Israelis as well.”

He said that, above all, peace must be brought to this land. “The building of the wall, the imprisonment of Palestinian parliamentarians, the continued settlements on the West Bank, annexation of East Jerusalem – it has to stop, it cannot go on like this. You cannot continue to imprison, humiliate the population and not expect something to come back in return,” he added.

Irina Zvyagelskaya, a professor from the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, says that the main task of the Quartet is to bring the conflicting parties together, either in direct or indirect talks. This time negotiators have to discuss the reasons for the conflict, not just the marginal problems.

“As far as the parties involved are concerned, it is very important right now to look at the situation and to see exactly what can be done not tomorrow, but probably today”, says Zvyagelskaya.

Dr Assad Abo Sharekh, an author and political analyst in Gaza, believes the US has not got the authority to stop Israel building in the disputed territories and he does not think Benjamin Netanyahu will be too concerned about what Washington thinks.

“If he was worried enough he would abide by the international law and the Middle East Quartet,” he said, but “unfortunately, Netanyahu is not going on the road of peace.”

Read also: Moscow summit: Can there be peace in the Middle East?