Members of the international "quartet" on the Middle East - the United States, Russia, European Union and the United Nations - met at the United Nations Friday to discuss their stalled "road map" to Middle East peace. They appealed to Israel and the Palestinians to take immediate steps to implement the plan.
Progress on the "road map" ground to a halt, amid a cycle of terrorist violence and retaliation, since the "quartet" partners' previous meeting three months ago in Jordan. And there was a clear sense of urgency in both a joint statement and news conference by the four parties, after their hour-long meeting at U.N. headquarters.
The statement said the "quartet" views the current situation in Israel and the Palestinian areas with "great concern." It said each party should do more "immediately and simultaneously" to address the core concerns of the other.
The participants said terrorist attacks in recent weeks by the Palestinian factions, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, are "morally indefensible," and called on Palestinians to take immediate and decisive steps against those conducting and planning violent attacks.
The "quartet" said it recognized Israel's legitimate right to self-defense in the face of terrorist attacks. But it said Israel must do all it can to avoid civilian casualties in any response, and should take no action undermining trust, including deportations and destruction of Palestinian homes.
The "quartet" members also reaffirmed that, in accordance with the "road map," Israeli settlement activity must stop, and they noted with concern the construction of Israel's West Bank security fence, particularly as it results in confiscation of Palestinian land and appears to pre-judge the borders of a future Palestinian state.
Expressing his personal concerns at the joint news conference, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that all those involved will pay a heavy price, if the road map and its promise of a two-state solution to the conflict by 2005 cannot be implemented.
"I would like to take this opportunity to remind the government of Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, and the entire international community, that the only alternative to this two-state solution is long-term conflict and instability. It seems to me that bold steps, in keeping with the road map, are now necessary to salvage peace. Small steps have not worked," Mr. Annan said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell for his part, told reporters the road map remains a viable path to peace, though he suggested that peace efforts will largely remain on hold, until Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qurie can set up a new government empowered to shut down the extremist factions.
"That road map is still valid. And we are now waiting to see whether or not the Palestinian people are able to put in place through their own system, a prime minister who will enjoy political authority and control over all the security forces, so that we can start moving again down the path laid out by the road map," Mr. Powell said.
Mr. Powell said he agreed with Secretary-General Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Fratini, who represented the European Union, to send envoys to the region more frequently, in an effort to get the peace plan moving again.
The "quartet" partners said they would convene again before the end of the year to review the situation.