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Mideast 'Quartet' Gives Formal Endorsement to Peace Plan

Top diplomats of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations have endorsed a program of steps leading to a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement including Palestinian statehood within three years. The so-called Middle East "quartet" met Tuesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

The "quartet," which is taking on an increasingly-important role in Middle East peace-making, has given its formal endorsement to a plan that envisages a final settlement including full Palestinian statehood by the middle of 2005.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters the three-step program should be preceded by an end to what he called "morally-repugnant" acts of violence and terror, and include Palestinian reforms and elections early next year.

But he said the success of reform effort, and political progress, depend on Israeli troop withdrawals and other efforts to improve the everyday lives of Palestinians:

"To allow the resumption of economic activity and the movement of goods, people and essential services," he said. "To ease or lift curfew and closures. Israel must also return the tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority. And all Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territory must stop."

The "quartet" plan incorporates the three-year timetable proposed in June by President Bush along with benchmarks offered soon afterward by the European Union.

Phase one would focus on Palestinian elections and reforms and humanitarian relief in the West Bank and Gaza. The second phase, next year, would include the option of Palestinian state with provision borders and a new constitution. The third phase calls for negotiations to create a permanent Palestinian state with final borders by 2005.

Mr. Annan said the road map will require reciprocal actions by Israel and the Palestinians and be strictly monitored by the "quartet," which will meet frequently including a session in November to assess humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian areas.

At a news conference with his "quartet" partners, Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed a reported Israeli threat to block Palestinian elections as long as Yasser Arafat held power, and said Palestinians must be allowed to express their views in a vote.

But the secretary reiterated the Bush administration view that Mr. Arafat's leadership has been a failure, and he noted with satisfaction that Palestinian legislators have begun to openly oppose him:

"We believe that the Palestinian people are also now looking for new kinds of leadership. You can see a good deal of churning within the Palestinian community," he said. "You saw what happened with the cabinet last week. So I think there is also an understanding within the Palestinian community that the leadership provided by Chairman Arafat has not succeeded in moving them closer to their goal."

Mr. Powell said the United States will not "dictate" who the Palestinians might choose to govern them. But said U.S. officials will "retain the option" of deciding who they will deal with, and in stating who they think would be an effective leader in moving toward peace.

The "quartet" members held an hour-long private meeting followed by a separate sessions with five Arab foreign ministers and another Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath.

Mr. Peres told reporters he approves of the quartet's role in peace efforts though Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is understood to have reservations about the new plan and its three-year timetable.