|Palestinian officials say Israel must freeze settlement expansion before direct talks can resume [Reuters]
Diplomats representing the Middle East Quartet - the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia - have agreed to encourage the Palestinians and Israel to return to direct talks.
After discussions in Brussels on Sunday, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said the Quartet will invite both sides to a meeting in the coming days.
The Quartet tried unsuccessfully to kick start negotiations during talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 23, when a fresh Quartet initiative called for the resumption of direct peace talks within a month and a commitment to sealing a deal by the end of 2012.
Israel subsequently called for an immediate return to peace talks under the framework of that proposal - a statement welcomed by the United States.
But Israeli officials said the plan included no preconditions - an interpretation the Palestinians quickly rejected.
The Palestinians, who demand Israel halt settlements on land where they want to build a future state, have rejected Quartet calls for a resumption of direct negotiations - on hold since 2008.
They say the Quartet has failed to prevent Israel from building settlements on occupied land, which Palestinians consider a precondition for returning to direct negotiations, along with Israeli acceptance of an eventual return to pre-1967 borders.
Tony Blair accused of questionable dealings in his role as Middle East envoy
Israel has announced plans to build 1,100 new housing units in occupied East Jerusalem despite claiming it is ready to resume Quartet-brokered talks.
Palestinian officials have also accused the Quartet's special envoy, Tony Blair, of trying to lobby European countries against their bid for statehood recognition at the UN last month.
Some have suggested that he hand in his resignation, citing alleged conflicts of interest between his role and his business interests.
"The expected thing from him to do is to say 'I'm sorry, goodbye'," Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian official, told Al Jazeera.
"The biggest problem that he did for us was speaking against our step towards the UN. You cannot be a mediator of the Quartet when 50 per cent of the Quartet support our step."
The UN Security Council, the only body that can bestow full membership, is currently reviewing the Palestinian request, which was presented by Palestinian Liberation Organisation President Mahmoud Abbas in New York last month.
But Washington has already pledged to veto any such resolution, saying it would worsen prospects for a direct settlement between the Palestinians and Israel.
Mediators from the Quartet have met sporadically in a so-far fruitless effort to bring the two sides together again. The Quartet has proposed a resumption in negotiations with the target of reaching an agreement by the end of 2012.
Source: Al Jazeera and Agencies