Israel objected, saying there were enough forums outside the council dealing with the issue. The United States agreed and prevented the Security Council from issuing a closing statement, diplomats said.

Still, the Arab League and Greece, which holds the council presidency, managed to gather foreign ministers, including Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, for a debate on reviving the peace process and ending all Arab-Israeli conflicts.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, said: "Like no other conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict carries a powerful symbolic and emotional charge for people throughout the world.

"And our continued failure to resolve this conflict calls into question the legitimacy and the effectiveness of this council itself."

He said the Security Council's role in bringing about a ceasefire in the Lebanese-Israeli conflict this summer showed it could play a role in the search for peace in the region.

But he said all parties needed a bridge "long enough to span the enormous gulf of mistrust that separates the parties, and strong enough to withstand the efforts that will inevitably be made to sabotage it".

Direct talks

Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, Bahrain's foreign minister, presented the Arab League's proposal that asked Annan to prepare a report, including a time frame, on means to resume direct talks among all the parties and what role the Security Council and other bodies should play.

Sheikh Khaled told the council: "If we lose this chance, we will all be losers. We have a good chance now to obtain peace and should not allow it to slip away."

He said Arab nations still demanded Israel's full withdrawal from the Palestinian territory, a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem and creation of a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital.

Rice as well as Margaret Becket, the British foreign secretary, urged foreign ministers to support the efforts of the quartet of Middle East mediators, which includes the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

Rice said: "Together, with other members of the quartet, we have called upon the Palestinian Authority to commit to the three principles of the quartet: renouncing terror and violence, recognising the right of Israel to exist and accepting previous agreements and obligations."

Dialogue

Only Israel sent its UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, rather than Tzipi Livni, its foreign minister, to the meeting, chaired by the Greek foreign minister.

Gillerman said Israel was hesitant in attending the meeting because "our experience has not always shown that this forum was helpful in generating peace".

"If we lose this chance, we will all be losers. We have a good chance now to obtain peace and should not allow it to slip away"

Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, Bahrain's foreign minister

Negotiations, he said, should be among the parties themselves, recalling that Livni had spoken to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in New York a few days ago to "re-energise the dialogue between us".

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said both the Security Council and UN General Assembly had a role to play but said that the search for peace was not a one-day affair confined to speeches.

He said an all-or-nothing approach "would be counterproductive" and "plunge the region into confrontation".

Lavrov also encouraged negotiations with Syria, saying Moscow had the "impression that Damascus is interested" in a peace settlement with Israel.