Representatives of the so-called Quartet - comprising the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - arrived in the region earlier in the week to promote Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza by the end of 2005.

The Quartet wants the withdrawal to be part of the "road map", its broader peace plan that envisions an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

Israeli officials, however, decided not to confer with the diplomats during a stop in Jerusalem on Tuesday, the latest sign that the Jewish state is attempting to exclude Europeans from peacemaking.

Preferred partner

"We do not work with the Europeans on security issues. We don't want to work with the Europeans on security issues," said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Asaf Shariv.

"We do not work with the Europeans on security issues. We don't want to work with the Europeans on security issues" 

Asaf Shariv,
Israeli prime minister's spokesman

"We work with the Americans on these issues. There are a lot of other issues, like economic, that we would be happy to work on with the Europeans," Shariv said.

Shariv denied Israel had refused to meet the Quartet. He said Israel first wants to talk to a White House delegation arriving later this week before discussing the withdrawal plan with others.

The United States is Israel’s staunchest ally.

Israel has often accused Europe of favouring the Palestinian cause, and prefers to deal directly with the United States.

Message to EU

The Sharon government has progressively distanced itself from the road map, which calls for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, since it signed on to the plan a year ago.

Sharon is more comfortable in
the company of US officials

The Israeli prime minister has refused to talk with the Palestinians as he prepares the Gaza pullout. Instead, he has asked Egypt, which borders Gaza, to help retrain Palestinian security forces and to ensure calm.

A diplomatic source expressed surprise at the Israeli snub. He said the EU has held a series of "very constructive" meetings with Israel on the Gaza plan.

"The message from the Israelis is that European contributions that help to make Gaza withdrawal a success will be very welcome," he said.

The Quartet envoys met on Wednesday with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya in the West Bank city of Ram Allah. Later, Quraya met with David Satterfield, the American representative at the talks.

"If it is true that Israeli officials would not meet with the Quartet, it means that Israel is turning its back to the entire world," Quraya said.