By Robert Burns Associated Press
MOSCOW — Top international diplomats today called on Israel and the Palestinians to return to peace negotiations with a goal of reaching a final settlement that would create an independent Palestinian state within 24 months. They reiterated their condemnation of Israel’s latest move to add Jewish housing in disputed east Jerusalem but did not escalate criticism of the Jewish state.
The so-called Quartet peacemakers met in the Russian capital and issued a formal statement read by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Joining the U.N. chief at the Moscow meeting were U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and the Quartet’s special representative, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Lavrov told a joint news conference that the Israelis and Palestinians should move first to indirect talks, followed by face-to-face negotiations. Those indirect talks were to have started last week but were stalled by reaction to Israel’s announcement of new housing in east Jerusalem.
Clinton said she expects to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington next week.
“We are all committed to the launching of proximity talks between the Israelis and Palestinians,” Clinton told reporters.
A spokesman for Netanyahu had no comment on the statement.
At a news conference after he Quartet meeting, Clinton spoke approvingly of indications Netanyahu is ready to address U.S. concerns.
“What I heard from the prime minister in response to the requests we made was useful and productive,” she said, “and we are continuing our discussions with him and his government. It’s one of the reasons that Senator Mitchell will be going back to the region and meeting with him in just a few days.”
George Mitchell, the U.S. Mideast peace envoy, is to meet in coming days with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in hopes of getting the process restarted. Mitchell attended today’s talks.
The fragile situation is Gaza was one of the key focuses of the Quartet’s formal statement. The diplomats expressed concern at the humanitarian situation there.
The Israeli air force responded early today to a rocket attack by Gaza militarist the day before by striking six targets in southern Gaza. The Israeli military identified the targets as three weapons-smuggling tunnels; two other tunnels that militants were digging to infiltrate into Israel; and a weapons workshop. No injuries were reported.
The rocket and the Israeli retaliation raised the specter of further conflagration at a time of renewed international focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a nod to Israeli security concerns, the group condemned the rocket attack and called for calm to be respected.
They also took “positive note” that the Israeli government recently endorsed a number of United Nations civilian recovery projects in Gaza, including a stalled housing project.
The group also called for the immediate release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Gaza’s Hamas rulers for more than three years.
Israel has drawn tough U.S. criticism in recent days for plans to build hundreds more homes for Jews in disputed east Jerusalem.
After Israel’s announcement last week of new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem, the Quartet issued a statement of condemnation but did not formally meet to discuss the matter. “Unilateral actions taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community,” it said in the March 12 statement.
The Quartet has consistently called for Israel to restrain settlement activity.
In a formal statement after its last meeting, in September 2009, the Quartet urged Israel to freeze all settlement activity and to “refrain from provocative actions” in east Jerusalem. It also called on the Palestinian Authority to continue to make efforts to improve law and order, to fight violent extremism and to end incitement.