04 May 2004
Quartet Sees "Opportunity" in Israel's Gaza Withdrawal
Powell assures Arabs U.S. has not abandoned Palestinians
By Judy Aita
Washington File United Nations Correspondent
United Nations -- Saying that an Israeli pullout from Gaza "must lead to a full Israeli withdrawal and complete end of occupation," the United Nations, European Union, Russia and the United States, collectively known as the Quartet, noted that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's announced intention to withdraw from all Gaza settlements and part of the West Bank "has the possibility of restarting progress on the road map" peace plan.
At a press conference held May 4 after a private meeting that lasted more than two hours, senior officials representing the Quartet issued a statement that also said that they "view with great concern the situation in the Middle East" and condemn continuing terror attacks on Israel. They also called on Israel to increase freedom of movement for people and goods both within and from the West Bank and Gaza.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the group reaffirmed its commitment to "our shared vision of two states living side-by-side in peace and security. One of those states will be Israel and the other a viable, democratic, sovereign, and contiguous Palestine."
On Sharon's withdrawal initiative, Annan said that the Quartet felt the initiative "should provide a rare moment of opportunity in the search for peace in the Middle East."
Besides Annan, Quartet members were also represented by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Foreign Minister Bryan Cowan of Ireland, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union (EU). Also attending the session were Javier Solana, EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, and Chris Patten, EU external relations commissioner.
The Quartet is the sponsor of the road map peace plan, which calls for Israel and the Palestinians to take a series of parallel and reciprocal steps leading to two states living side-by-side in peace and security by 2005.
Powell said that "what the Quartet is focused on today [is] how to take advantage of this new opportunity of the evacuation of settlements -- as opposed to just relying on the statements of the past ... and how we can get the Palestinians ready to take advantage of this opportunity and get back into the road map, get back on the path to peace."
The secretary of state also sought to assure the international community that President Bush's letter to Sharon on the right of return and Jewish settlements does not undermine the Palestinians' ability to negotiate a final settlement.
The exchange between Bush and Sharon "is consistent with what we are doing here today," Powell said. "In fact, what we have done here today is note the new opportunity that exists for progress in the Middle East because, for the first time, we have an Israeli prime minister who has stood up and said he wants to evacuate settlements -- 21 in Gaza and four in the West Bank."
"Mr. Sharon had a setback obviously with the Likud party [voting against his initiative] the other day, but he continues to say it is his goal to go forward with evacuations and he is examining how best to do that," the secretary said, pointing out that polls suggests that "a majority of Israeli citizens would like to see a movement in this direction."
President Bush "took into account certain realities that we believe were appropriate to be taken into account with the right of return and with respect to alignment of armistice lines that might be appropriate," Powell said. "Previous negotiations knew that these features, the realities, would have to be taken into account in any future negotiations."
The Quartet statement should be viewed in the international community as assurance that President Bush "has not abandoned the vision he laid out in June of 2002," the secretary said.
"The statement we have issued today on behalf of the Quartet ... is some assurance to the Arab world, to the whole world, that we are committed to the basis upon which the peace process rests, that is, appropriate U.N. resolutions. We are committed to the parties agreeing amongst themselves on final status issues, not having those final status issues imposed," Powell said.
The secretary added that the United States also is talking with Arab leaders to see what other assurances and comments they need from the United States "to make sure that they know that the president has not abandoned them, has not abandoned the hope for the creation of a Palestinian state."
Until Sharon's announcement, the future of the road map peace process was uncertain, he said.
"Where were we a few weeks ago? We were still hoping for something to break, something to come into the equation that would change the equation and give us something to work with," he said.
"We now have that with the stated intention of Prime Minister Sharon and with the clear support of the Israeli people to move in this direction. This gives us something to work with and we are trying to take advantage of that opportunity," Powell said.
"If we seize this opportunity and work with the parties to get back onto the road map, both sides will be expected to meet their obligations under the road map and settlements will be evacuated ... [T]hat settlement property will be converted to constructive use on the part of the Palestinian people, who will be free to move about these areas and build a society for themselves," Powell said.
"So we view this as an opportunity to be seized," the secretary said. "That is what the Quartet said today and I think the statement should be read that way by our friends and colleagues in the Arab world."
Annan said that the Quartet "also notes that no party should take unilateral actions that seek to predetermine issues that can only be resolved through negotiation and agreement between the two parties."
In addition, the secretary-general said, the Quartet is "prepared to engage with a responsible and accountable Palestinian leadership, committed to reform and security performance."
The Quartet will work with the World Bank and other agencies to ensure that Palestinian humanitarian needs are met, Palestinian infrastructure is restored and developed, and economic activity is reinvigorated, Annan said.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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