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US to Convene Meeting on Mideast Peace - 2002-11-25

The United States will convene a ministerial-level meeting of the Middle East "quartet" next month for further work on their emerging "roadmap" for Middle East peace. The December 20 meeting will bring together Secretary of State Colin Powell, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and top officials from the European Union.

The meeting will be aimed in part at showing that Middle East peace efforts have not stalled out, despite the Bush administration's focus on Iraq, continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence, and the prospect of Israeli and Palestinian elections early next year.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the "roadmap" is a work in progress, and that the upcoming elections in the two camps are no reason to suspend work on the document, which aims for a final, two-state, settlement of the Middle East conflict by 2005.

"We've tried to integrate the fact that there is a political process ongoing on the Israeli side and there's talk of elections on the Palestinian side as well," he said. "We've looked toward elections on the Palestinian side in early 2003. All that is understood and tried to be integrated in the "roadmap." But as I think I've explained to you before, the attempt is to make progress where we can, when we can, and try to lay out as clearly as possible the steps that are necessary to make progress."

No official text of the "roadmap" has been made public, and officials here say the December 20 meeting is unlikely to produce a final version of the peace plan. However The New York Times earlier this month carried what it said was a U.S. working draft of the document.

It calls for a three stage process starting with the creation of a Palestinian reform government and mutual confidence building steps including the lifting of Israeli curfews and closures in Palestinian areas. A second transitional phase would produce agreement on a Palestinian state with provisional borders by the end of next year.

The third stage, according to the Times account, would include final agreement on the borders of the Palestinian state and on other key issues including the future of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements, and culminate with Arab-wide recognition of Israel in line with the initiative by the Arab League at its Beirut summit last March.

Announcement of the "quartet" meeting, which, will be the first since September, came amid another upsurge of violence in the region that started with a suicide bus bombing that killed 11 Israelis in Jerusalem last Friday.

Spokesman Boucher said progress toward realizing Palestinian political aspirations "is simply impossible" while "heinous" attacks like the one that occurred Friday continue. At the same time, he urged Israel to consider the consequences of retaliatory steps and to complete them as soon as possible.

He also expressed deep concern about civilian casualties resulting from Israeli military actions, including the death of a U.N. official in the Jenin refugee camp Saturday, and that of a eight year old Palestinian boy in Nablus Monday.