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Mideast Quartet Urges Israeli-Palestinian Peace Accord by Year's End

The international Quartet on the Middle East peace process Friday called on Israel and the Palestinians to make every effort to conclude a peace agreement by the end of this year. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Quartet envoy Tony Blair both insisted an early deal is still possible. VOA's David Gollust reports from our U.N. bureau.

It is widely-held among Middle East analysts that Israel's government crisis, the pending change in U.S. administrations and other factors make achievement of a Middle East peace deal in 2008, as envisaged at last year's Annapolis conference, all but impossible.

However the Middle East Quartet, made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, says a meaningful negotiating process between the Palestinians and Israel is underway, and it appealed to the sides Friday to continue to make every effort to conclude an agreement by year's end.

The appeal followed a senior level Quartet meeting at U.N. headquarters Friday. At a news conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected Arab assertions at a special Security Council meeting earlier in the day that the regional peace process is failing because of Israeli settlement activity.

Rice said the current closed-door negotiations between the sides is the most serious effort of its kind in seven years and have been bolstered by Quartet progress in building Palestinian Authority security forces and economic activity in the West Bank. "It is a difficult process. There are difficult issues. Had this been easy, it would have been solved 30 years ago. But they are indeed working very hard. And I think it is a process that deserves the support of all of the parties and the encouragement of all the parties, and I would ask all parties including those in the region to be encouraging of the parties," she said.

Rice said it is noteworthy that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, only a day after being designated by her party early this week to replace outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, returned to talks with Palestinian lead negotiator Ahmed Qureia.

She said while the sides have kept the content of the talks secret, the negotiations are ongoing and robust and said if they work urgently, the prospect of a deal this year is still within reach.

Rice's optimism was shared by Quartet envoy Blair, the former British Prime Minister who has been spearheading efforts on the ground to develop infrastructure for the envisaged Palestinian state. "The last thing anyone should ever be in this situation is foolishly-optimistic. We know what all the challenges are. And as I say, it's possible to be totally negative. But that's not my perspective. My perspective is that this was going down and down and down for seven years. It has stopped going down. It is moving back up. It has to move far faster back up. But there is for the first time an agreed strategy around politics, the security situation, and how we lift the pressure of occupation," he said.

In a statement, the Quartet expressed deep concern about increasing Israeli settlement activity, which it said has a damaging impact on the negotiating environment. It called on Israel to freeze all settlement activity including so-called natural growth, and to dismantle settler outposts erected since 2001.

At the same time, it condemned acts of terrorism against Israelis including rocket attacks from Gaza and stressed the need for further Palestinian efforts to dismantle the infrastructure of terror and to foster an atmosphere of tolerance.

The four powers commended Egyptian efforts to overcome the split between the Palestinian Authority and the militant Hamas movement which controls Gaza. They expressed hope the relative calm in Gaza the last three months will lead to more normal movement of people and goods in and out of the coastal strip.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed an offer by the two parties to brief the Quartet on the content of their confidential negotiations in the region soon.