Rice says her brief trip to region will build momentum for US-led peace conference.
|Blair, now the Quartet’s special envoy, helped
to restore peace in Northern Ireland [EPA]
Members of the Middle East peace Quartet – the EU, Russia, the US and the UN – will meet on Sunday to discuss the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace summit planned to be held in November.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, is set to host the meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state; Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister; and Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief.
Rice has planned a separate meeting with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and current Quartet special envoy, before Sunday’s meeting.
The meetings comes against a backdrop of calls by George Bush, the US President, for a Middle East peace conference aimed at jumpstarting the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
The Quartet issued a “roadmap” for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace in 2003, but the three-stage plan that should have led to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 has languished.
After the meeting, Quartet members are to sit down on Sunday night with representatives of the Arab League at an “iftar” dinner, the evening meal for breaking the daily fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan.
Earlier this month, Jordan’s King Abdullah told Blair that final status issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be a top priority at the peace conference.
Abdullah said his country, a close US ally, “supports all efforts by the Quartet to bring closer the points of view between the Palestinians and Israelis ahead of the peace meeting called for by US President George W Bush”.
Egypt’s foreign minister warned that if Bush’s planned Middle East peace conference fails, extremists among the Palestinians could be strengthened.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think-tank in New York, Ahmed Aboul Gheit said it was vital for Washington to do as much preparation as it did before the 1978 Camp David accords that led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
“If before the conference there will be a document that would convince people that both of them are able to do something, then you will find everybody jumping in and trying to help,” Aboul Gheit said.
“If, on the other hand, we would not see that situation, then by the end of the year it will be a very difficult situation, for the Palestinians mainly, and the extremist elements among the Palestinians would win the day.”
In a parallel development, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, have held a series of talks in recent months in a bid to hammer out an agreement before the conference, in order to revive peace negotiations which have been dormant for seven years.
On Sunday, Israel approved the release of 90 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Abbas’ in an effort to speed up the peace process.
The prisoners are allegedly all members of Abbas’ Fatah party from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Gideon Ezra, the environment minister and a member of Olmert’s Kadima party, told public radio that the latest prisoner release “would favour the restart of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority”.
But Ashraf al-Ajrami, Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, said: “When Israel frees 100 Palestinians, it puts in jail the same number, as it has during the last three days.”
Olmert is scheduled fly to France and the UK in October for meetings with the countries’ leaders before November’s conference, a senior Israeli official said on Sunday.
“Prime Minister Olmert will go on a brief visit to London and Paris in order to hold talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who have recently taken office,” the official said.
The UN General Assembly has passed well over 400 resolutions on the Palestinian-Israeli issue over the years, of which Israel is condemned on 321 occasions.
Many Arab diplomats are sceptical of the current US efforts to foster peace. They feel that the US sees the peace talks as a means to convey a false sense of momentum towards peace in the Middle East, rather than as a serious attempt to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But a new impetus from the Quartet, and the energy expected to be put into a solution from Blair, has at least created a sense of hope for concrete results towards a lasting peace between the two sides.