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Mideast Quartet Urges Follow-Up Steps to Gaza Withdrawal

The international Quartet on the Middle East, Tuesday, urged Israel and the Palestinians to follow-up Israel's withdrawal from Gaza with steps toward implementation of the regional peace road map. Senior officials of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations conferred on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

The Quartet paid tribute to the political courage of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in carrying out the Gaza pullout, and applauded what it said was the responsible behavior of the Palestinians during the process.

But it also made clear it expects tangible steps by the parties, beyond the disengagement, to fulfill obligations under the road map to a permanent two-state solution to the Middle East conflict the Quartet presented two-and-a-half years ago.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan read a statement by the Quartet after a two-hour meeting at the United Nations. Among other things, it urged the Palestinian Authority to maintain law and order and dismantle what were termed terrorist capabilities and infrastructure.

It called on Israel to stop settlement expansion and dismantle unauthorized settlement outposts, and said it continues to note with concern the route of Israel's controversial security barrier in the West Bank.

At a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and European Union officials including foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Mr. Annan said it is essential that Palestinians know that the process will go beyond the Gaza withdrawal:

"What happens in the West Bank is very much on our mind," said Mr. Annan. "For us, the Quartet, it's Gaza first and then the next stage will be West Bank. Not Gaza first and Gaza last. And so prospectively, we realize that the Palestinians have to be given hope and a sense of horizon, and that is very much our approach, too."

The Quartet statement said the partners discussed the Palestinian political process and the role in it by armed groups, amid expressions of Israeli concern about plans by the militant Islamic faction Hamas to take part in general elections planned for January.

The statement said those who want to be part of the political process should not engage in armed group or militant activities saying there is a fundamental contradiction between that and democracy building. However the Quartet did not mention Hamas by name or call for an outright ban on such groups in the election.

Secretary Rice said under questioning that the Quartet partners realize Palestinian democracy is a work in progress.

"There is concern that any democratic process must observe that you cannot have a kind of armed option within the democratic process," said Ms. Rice. "But we understand that the Palestinian political system is in transition, that it is in transition toward a democratic system, and that that has to be a Palestinian process."

The Quartet meeting coincided with a U.N. General Assembly policy speech by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who repeated Prime Minister Sharon's warning of last week that Israel will not help the Palestinian Authority facilitate the election, if Hamas fields candidates.

"Hamas is responsible for the deliberate murder of hundreds of Israeli civilians, among them scores of women and children," he said. "Israel cannot, and will not, grant legitimacy to such an organization. We will not cooperate with its desire to participate in the forthcoming Palestinian election. And we call on the international community to make clear its own opposition to the inclusion of such terrorists in the democratic process."

Mr. Shalom urged Arab and Muslim countries which have had low-key political contacts with Israel since the Gaza withdrawal to go public with them in the interest of advancing peace.

He also said it is time for Israel to be allowed to play a full role in United Nations affairs, and said he will formally request that Israel be considered, for the first time, for a rotating seat on the Security Council.