Israel Must Halt Settlement Activity, Says Mideast Quartet

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TRIESTE, Italy — A broad international coalition urged Israel on Friday to freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank and lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip, backing U.S. President Barack Obama's Mideast policy.

The Quartet of Mideast negotiators and foreign ministers of the Group of Eight industrialized nations took advantage of what the U.N. chief said was a "historic" opportunity with the new Obama administration in issuing nearly identical calls for the resumption of direct peace talks, an end to violence, and economic reconstruction for war-battered Gaza.

"We are now trying very hard to seize the very favorably created political atmosphere," of Obama's election to push the peace process forward, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a news conference.

Israel has rejected demands that it halt all settlement building, saying it must accommodate "natural growth" in the Israeli enclaves.

However both the G-8 and the Quartet _ the United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations _ urged Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, with the quartet also urging it to dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001.

It was the first Quartet meeting since Obama came to office, held on the sidelines of a meeting of the G-8 foreign ministers in this picturesque Adriatic port on Italy's northeastern coast. At the G-8 meeting, ministers also said they deplored the postelection violence in Iran and urged the Tehran authorities to ensure the will of the Iranian people is reflected in the electoral outcome.

The G-8 meeting was to tackle the Afghanistan situation later Friday and Saturday.

Originally, Iran had been invited to attend the Afghan sessions, part of host Italy's aim to involve all regional players in discussions. But Rome rescinded its invitation following the crackdown on protesters, and the focus of the G-8 summit Friday shifted to criticizing the crackdown and pressing forward with Mideast peace.

The G-8 and Quartet called for an immediate and "sustained reopening" of Gaza's crossing points to ensure a regular flow of people, as well as humanitarian and commercial goods into the isolated territory. While recognizing Israel's "legitimate security concerns," the Quartet said enabling movement of and access for Palestinians was "critical."

Gaza's borders were closed by Israel and Egypt after the takeover two years ago of the territory by Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the West. Hamas has repeatedly fired rockets from Gaza on Israeli border towns, setting off a three-week war by Israel on Gaza's Hamas leaders in the winter.

Israel has allowed some humanitarian aid and food supplies into Gaza, but the reconstruction of Gaza's war damage, including thousands of damaged or destroyed homes, is on hold because Israel won't allow in cement or other building materials.

The call of both the Quartet and the G-8 for a settlement freeze signaled broad international support for Obama's Mideast policy.

The Bush administration had accepted the need for some settlement growth, something the Palestinians long rejected.

But just last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated that the United States wanted a halt to settlement activity in the West Bank, saying no informal agreement that Israel may have reached with the Bush administration was valid. Clinton was speaking after a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said he wanted the Bush administration understandings to remain.

The United States and Israel have at least publicly given no ground in their opposing views, though Israeli officials say they are trying to find a formula agreeable to Washington that would allow at least limited construction.

The U.S. special Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell, denied the United States and Israel were heading in opposite directions under Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The United States and Israel are close friends and allies," Mitchell said Friday.

In discussions with Israeli officials as well as the Palestinians and Arab leaders, "there may be some difference of opinions, but we discuss them not as a controversy among adversaries but as a discussion among friends," he said at a news conference after the Quartet meeting.

The settlement issue is a major obstacle both to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and to an eventual peace deal. Nearly 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, along with 180,000 Israelis in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. The Palestinians seek both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future state.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu grudgingly yielded to Obama's demand that Israel endorse the idea of a Palestinian state, albeit with a host of conditions the Palestinians reject.

But he rejected U.S. pressure for a settlement freeze.

The Quartet's special representative, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said the political push for a two-state solution had to be accompanied by changes on the ground, including an end to settlements and economic reconstruction for Gaza.

"The best way to ensure that Gaza is part of the solution and does not remain the problem is that we help the people," Blair said. "You can never separate the politics and the security and the economics. They go together."

In the statement, the Quartet welcomed plans by Israel to promote Palestinian economic development and called for "robust and sustained" financial support of the Palestinian Authority. It demanded the Palestinians commit themselves to nonviolence and recognize Israel.

Ban, the U.N. chief, said there was a "historic" opportunity for Mideast peace, praising Obama's "powerful, visionary" speech delivered in Cairo earlier this month. Obama called for a new beginning between the United States and Muslims to confront violent extremism and to advance Mideast peace.

The European commissioner for foreign relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, concurred.

"With the new Obama administration ... there is a new possibility of engagement. That has to be used. That is the way forward," she said.

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