'Quartet' Gathers to Discuss Peace in Middle East

A group of would-be Middle East peacemakers gathers in Washington. The United States, Russia, European Union and the United Nations drafted the so-called roadmap to peace. But the Israelis and Palestinians have been stuck, not even fulfilling the first phase of the step-by-step approach to a two-state solution.

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted a meeting of would-be Middle East peacemakers in Washington today. The group condemned the current fighting in Gaza between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. And it stuck by its ban on aid to the Palestinian government, which is led by Hamas. It also backed Secretary Rice's efforts to revive Arab/Israeli peace talks.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The gathering of the so-called quartet - the U.S., Russia, European Union and United Nations - was meant to highlight a renewed international interest in reviving the long dormant Arab/Israeli peace process. But united it was not.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear that though he'd sign on to the final statement, he thinks the group's policy of isolating Hamas and keeping up an aid boycott hasn't worked. Hamas still doesn't recognize Israel or renounce violence.

Mr. SERGEI LAVROV (Russian Foreign Minister): (Through translator) We are convinced that it is necessary to work with Hamas to try to influence their position so that Hamas would accept those principles that were formulated by the quartet. If those principles remain on paper and we just hope that they would magically be implemented and would become part of Hamas's position, this is hardly realistic.

KELEMEN: Lavrov also said Syria - where part of Hamas is based - could play a constructive role and should not be isolated. Secretary Rice stuck to her position.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State): Syria knows what it needs to do to be a stabilizing force not just in the Palestinian/Israeli issue, but in the region as a whole. And I hope that it will in fact try and play a positive role rather than a negative one.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice says the violence in Gaza was one area of concern today. Her policy is to support forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. And she says she believes one way to do this is to get him talking to Israel's prime minister about the contours of a Palestinian state.

Ms. RICE: I don't think that it helps at this very early stage to talk about a timetable, but it does help to talk about commitment.

KELEMEN: To show her commitment, she's planning to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together later this month. Stephen P. Cohen, National Scholar for the Israel Policy Forum, says Mideast watchers are still wondering whether Rice is ready for the sort of hands-on diplomacy it will take.

Dr. STEPHEN P. COHEN (Israel Policy Forum): There's a sense of somewhat more uncertainty that the United States is going to do nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. COHEN: Now that is a move in the right direction, but as you say by your laughter, it is not enough of a move in the right direction.

KELEMEN: Today at the State Department, Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described those gather as realists who know they can't just throw a switch and have things develop in the right direction. It is a process, he said, one that will continue with another meeting soon in Berlin.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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