The Middle East Quartet is calling on Israel to freeze all new construction in disputed East Jerusalem as part of efforts to get Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track.
The Quartet, which met in Moscow today, groups the UN, United States, the European Union, and Russia.
Speaking for the Middle East Quartet, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel today to freeze all new construction in disputed East Jerusalem.
"The Quartet urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including 'natural growth,' dismantle outposts erected since March 2001, and to refrain from demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem," Ban said.
He said no party should take unilateral actions in East Jerusalem, whose status is to be negotiated as part of any permanent peace deal.
"The annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognized by the international community. The Quartet underscores that the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties," Ban said, "and condemns the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem."
The UN chief also urged the Israelis and Palestinians to return to peace talks and said those talks should reach result in a deal within 24 months.
Ban's statements mark a strong stand for the Quartet, which was formed eight years ago to help mediate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but has often been criticized for doing little to stimulate the faltering peace process. Now, in the wake of the new settlements crisis, and a Palestinian refusal to participate even in indirect talks, the Quartet is reacting with unusual forcefulness.
Part of the reason for that forcefulness may be timing.
Today's meeting in Moscow was scheduled months in advance. But it comes just a week after the U.S. vice president, Joe Biden, made a visit to the region that dramatically underlined how troubled the prospects for peace there remain.
Biden's trip was intended to kick-start a new round of indirect peace talks brokered by Washington. But it ended in failure as the Israeli government simultaneously unveiled plans to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians, who claim the same land as part of their future capital under any two-state peace solution, said they would refuse to be part of Washington's new initiative unless the housing scheme were scrapped.
Underlining Washington's anger, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton subsequently called the announcement of new construction in East Jerusalem on the day of Biden's visit "insulting."
Since then, tensions in the region have only grown. A rocket fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza killed a Thai worker in Israel on March 18. Israeli aircraft bombed at least six targets in retaliatory strikes on Gaza today.
The question now is how quickly today's Quartet announcement can rescue the rapidly deteriorating situation.
One possibility is that the Quartet's statements will strengthen a simultaneous bid by Washington to press Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to reopen communications with the Palestinians despite the unresolved construction crisis.
Clinton, who is in Moscow for the Quartet meeting, telephoned Netanyahu on March 18. Netanyahu's spokesman Nir Chefetz said afterwards the Israeli leader had proposed some "confidence-building steps" both Israelis and Palestinians could take. He did not provide any details.
Also attending today's Quartet meeting were EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Quartet representative Tony Blair, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
compiled from agency reports