Rice calls Mideast quartet meeting for Feb. 2

/ Source: Reuters

The United States has invited the quartet of Middle East negotiators to meet in Washington on Feb. 2, backing efforts to widen international involvement in the stalled peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

Several European countries, including Germany, want the quartet — the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union — to play a bigger role in the process.

“I have issued an invitation to the members of the quartet for a meeting in Washington that will take place in the week beginning January 29, and is likely to take place on February 2,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters.

She gave details of the planned quartet meeting before holding talks in Berlin on Thursday with Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is the current president of the European Union.

Rice arrived in Berlin from a 5-day trip to the Middle East where she discussed both the relentless fighting in Iraq since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion and efforts to revive peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

In search of Arab backing
During her visit, which took her to Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Rice obtained support from Arab allies for U.S. plans to deploy more troops to try to stabilize Iraq.

She said during the week that she plans to bring Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas together in a few weeks for informal talks on how to set up a Palestinian state.

She also said she favors a concerted, unified approach, and it would be useful for the quartet to examine various ideas on how to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track.

Little progress
Middle East peace efforts have made little progress since 2000 when a Palestinian uprising broke out months after the collapse of talks brokered by then-President Clinton.

The quartet drafted a “road map” for peace in 2003, calling for confidence building measures by Palestinians and Israelis but little has been done so far.

Merkel, who has vowed to do what she can to push forward the peace process during Germany’s EU presidency, told reporters she thought there was some movement.

“In the framework of the quartet, the European Union will support the momentum of the past weeks,” Merkel told reporters.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed Rice’s comments.

“I believe there is a real chance now ... that the two state solution is coming a little bit closer,” he told reporter on a visit to Vienna.

Rice  will travel to Britain later Thursday where she will brief British Prime Minister Tony Blair on her Middle East tour.

“The most important thing is that we keep talking to everyone, not just about what our impressions are of what is happening on the ground but also on how we can help push things forward,” Blair’s spokesman said.

A year ago, Islamist militant group Hamas defeated Abbas’ Fatah in a Palestinian parliamentary election. Hamas has rejected quartet calls to renounce violence and recognize Israel.