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Middle East: Diplomatic Effort Shows Divide Over Priorities

The international diplomatic quartet on the Middle East has reaffirmed its shared vision of a Palestinian state but continues to show divisions over how to reach that goal. In their latest meeting, top officials of the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia differed again with the United States on the issue of Palestinian leadership and whether security is the overriding issue in efforts to end the Middle East conflict.

New York, 17 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The international group trying to coordinate a new Middle East peace process has reaffirmed its support for a Palestinian state but expressed disagreement over some key issues in reaching that goal.

The group met on 16 July in New York and issued a statement afterward pledging support for the goal of a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement within three years, culminating in the emergence of a democratic Palestinian state.

The group promised to help carry out reforms of the Palestinian Authority, especially in its security apparatus. Its statement also called on Israel to take immediate steps to ease internal closures in certain areas its forces have occupied.

But as comments at a subsequent press conference made clear, there were still some sharp differences between the group's lead member, the United States, and its three other partners: the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters that the diplomatic quartet is still searching for consensus on how to move the peace process forward. "We all share the end objective of two states living in peace side by side. What we have to do is to work out how we get there. What is the operational pathway that gets us to that goal in three years' time?" Annan said.

The quartet's efforts to advance the peace process have been hindered by differences over the legitimacy of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. U.S. President George W. Bush says the Palestinians must choose new leaders as a prerequisite for Washington's support.

But Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and the EU representative, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, all stressed yesterday that they recognized Arafat as the leader of the Palestinians.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who also attended the talks, recently suggested that a compromise on Arafat might be possible, such as making him a figurehead leader. There was no comment on such a proposal yesterday, but Powell repeated U.S. concerns that Arafat had failed to lead his people properly. "Most of our time was spent on real concrete things, and we did not spend a great deal of time on personalities. With respect to Mr. Arafat, this is a choice or decision that will ultimately have to be made by the Palestinian people. As President [Bush] has said, the leadership [the Palestinians] have enjoyed in recent years has not brought them any closer to a Palestinian state," Powell said.

Powell referred to the latest terrorist attack on Israeli civilians near the West Bank town of Nablus. Seven Israelis were killed and at least 20 others wounded in an ambush on a bus by armed Palestinians. Powell said such acts destroy the hopes of Palestinians trying to create a state of their own.

Powell said the quartet was seeking to advance a peace process on three tracks, including security improvements, political talks, and economic and humanitarian assistance. He said all efforts must begin with improving the security situation. But Annan and Moeller said there must also be progress on political and economic issues or else it would be difficult to curb the violence.

Moeller said unless there was movement on all major issues at the same time, those opposed to peace would win. "I think it's very important that those people who are trying to destroy the peace, because they will not accept the existence of Israel, cannot win the day. So that's why we must keep the security and the reform and the social progress approximately side by side. Otherwise, it will turn wrong once more and once more and once more again," Moeller said.

The meeting yesterday expressed support for the newly formed international Task Force on Reform, which includes representatives from the quartet, as well as Japan, Norway, the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. It will work to develop an action plan for Palestinian reforms, including elections, financial accountability, and judicial and administrative reform.

The quartet members agreed that in the run-up to any reforms, ways must be found to get more help to the Palestinians. But even on matters of aid there have been differences. The U.S. administration distributes aid to the Palestinian people in ways that circumvent the Palestinian Authority, which it accuses of corruption.

The European Union submits some of its assistance to the Palestinian leadership. The EU's chief foreign-policy official, Javier Solana, yesterday defended the way aid is delivered to the Palestinians. "The donor community's resources that go to the Palestinian Authority, including the European Union, has more controls than any other [aid] donors community contributed to any other country in the world," Solana said.

On the same day as the quartet meeting, the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, released a series of reports ( urging a major international push for a political settlement of the Mideast dispute. The reports said that despite the diplomatic efforts of groups like the quartet, there is still no clear international commitment to seek out a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement, or to work out peace treaties with Syria and Lebanon.

The group also faulted the United States for insisting on an end to violence as a prerequisite for a political process, saying this approach only allows extremists on both sides to have more influence.