Quartet tells Israel to halt settlement activity

The Quartet for the Middle East on Friday urged Israel to stop building settlements and set a target for a final deal with the Palestinians within two years.

The Israeli announcement of the construction of 1 600 new settler homes led the Palestinians to call for a halt to peace talks and precipitated the worst crisis in United States-Israeli relations in years.

“The quartet urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said after the meeting of the quartet of the United States, the United Nations, European Union and Russia.

He said at the meeting hosted by Russia in Moscow that Israel should also halt natural settlement growth, dismantle outposts erected since March 2001 and refrain from demolitions and evictions in east Jerusalem.

East Jerusalem is the mainly Arab half of the Holy City, which was annexed by Israel after a war in 1967.

The quartet “reaffirms that unilateral actions taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognised by the international community”, Ban added.

With the peace process stagnant, the quartet also urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks on final status issues with the aim of finding a settlement within the next 24 months, Ban said.

He said such a settlement would end “the occupation which began in 1967 and result in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours”.

The timing of Israel’s settlement announcement had infuriated Washington — Israel’s chief ally — coming as US Vice-President Joe Biden visited the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Clinton late on Thursday, US State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley said, following a tense call last week when Clinton had asked Netanyahu to order a halt to the settler plans.

Clinton on Friday described the relationship between Israel and the US as “deep and broad, strong and enduring”.

She said, however, that the United States stood behind the quartet’s call for a freeze on all settlement activity.

“We all condemn the [settlement] announcement and we are all expecting both parties to move toward the proximity talks,” Clinton said.

‘Effectively halt settlement activity’
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat welcomed the quartet’s call, but asked also for a mechanism to “make sure that Israel does effectively halt completely all settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem”,

“We welcome the statement and we urge the quartet to turn its statements into binding mechanisms on the ground so that Israel honours its commitments, above all halting all settlement activity in all the Palestinian territories — the West Bank and east Jerusalem,” Erakat said.

As well as Clinton and Ban, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton were present at the meeting along with former British prime minister Tony Blair, who is the quartet’s representative.

Ashton’s visit to Moscow comes a day after she made a rare trip by a top foreign official to the Gaza Strip that was overshadowed by fresh violence.

A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on Thursday slammed into an Israeli kibbutz killing a Thai agricultural worker just a few kilometres from the Gaza border.

Hours later, Israeli aircraft hit several targets across the Gaza Strip but there were no reports of serious injuries, Palestinian security officials said.

Ban said the quartet was “deeply concerned” about the situation in the Gaza Strip, “including the humanitarian and human rights situation of the civilian population”.

Amid an intense flurry of diplomatic activity, Ban is to visit the Middle East, including Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, this weekend.

A senior Palestinian official told Agence France-Presse on Thursday that the US’s special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, would arrive in the region on Sunday for a visit that had been delayed by the row with Israel. — AFP

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Christophe Schmidt
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