updated 5/4/2004 3:06:39 PM ET 2004-05-04T19:06:39

Four would-be Mideast peacemakers called on Tuesday for reorganizing Palestinian leadership to counter terror attacks on Israel and said territory evacuated by Israel should be turned over quickly to the Palestinian Authority.

“Hope is in short supply,” said Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowan as the peacemaking Quartet — the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia — reaffirmed their call for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians under a stalled “road map” that has languished for months.

In a three-page statement summarizing their deliberations, they endorsed again establishment of a Palestinian state and “took positive note” of a proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw Israeli troops and all 7,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza — a plan that the Israel leader’s own Likud political party rejected on Sunday.

A rare moment of opportunity’
“The Quartet welcomes and encourages such a step, which should provide a rare moment of opportunity in the search for peace in the Middle East,” the statement said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, at a news conference, sought to assure the Palestinians and their supporters that President Bush “has not abandoned their hope for a Palestinian state” with the assurances he gave Sharon last month that he supports Israel’s retention of some West Bank settlements.

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Powell said Sharon’s proposal, which the prime minister may revise in a bid to gain approval in Israel, is “an opportunity that ought to be seized.”

Only the United States was enthusiastic in the first place about Sharon’s idea, which would have withdrawn Israeli troops and all 7,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip and undertaken a partial pullback from the West Bank.

Sharon won President Bush’s support for the plan at a White House meeting last month. Bush backed the Israeli leader on two key issues. He said new realities since 1967 — the 225,000 Israeli Jews who have established communities on the West Bank — suggest some Jewish settlements ought to remain on there as part of an overall agreement with the Palestinians.

Bush also rejected Arab demands for a “right of return” that would resettle in Israel some Palestinians who claim their families were expelled during the establishment of Israel in 1948.

But on Sunday, Sharon’s Likud party voted against his plan 60 percent to 40 percent in a nonbinding referendum. That sent the prime minister back to the drawing board to develop a scaled-down version that might get by Likud but would be even more unlikely to attract the support of the Palestinians or their Arab and European supporters.

The United Nations, European governments and Russia support the Arabs in insisting that Israel relinquish all of Gaza, all of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.

Fred Eckhard, the U.N. spokesman, referring to Sharon’s proposal, said Monday that Annan believed “any withdrawal should clearly lead to an end of (Israel’s) occupation and be carried out as part of the Quartet’s road map in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.”

Bush reaffirms support for Sharon plan
The Bush administration held its ground Monday. The White House reaffirmed its support for what spokesman Scott McClellan called Sharon’s bold proposal and said staff-level talks had begun with Israel to determine how to move forward.

But a senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said later that Bush would not try to put Sharon’s Gaza plan back on track.

In Washington, meanwhile, a group of about 50 former U.S. diplomats signed a letter to Bush contending that his “unabashed support” for Sharon is costing the United States “credibility, prestige and friends.”

“By closing the door to negotiations with Palestinians and the possibility of a Palestinian state, you have proved that the U.S. is not an evenhanded peace partner,” the letter said.Sharon won President Bush’s support for the plan at a White House meeting last month. Bush backed the Israeli leader on two key issues. He said new realities since 1967 — the 225,000 Israeli Jews who have established communities on the West Bank — suggest some Jewish settlements ought to remain on there as part of an overall agreement with the Palestinians.

Bush also rejected Arab demands for a “right of return” that would resettle in Israel some Palestinians who claim their families were expelled during the establishment of Israel in 1948.

By contrast, the United Nations, European governments and Russia support the Arabs in insisting that Israel relinquish all of Gaza, all of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.

Fred Eckhard, the U.N. spokesman, referring to Sharon’s proposal, said Monday that Annan believed “any withdrawal should clearly lead to an end of (Israel’s) occupation and be carried out as part of the Quartet’s road map in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.”

Last week, Annan said the road map was “in distress but not dead.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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