Quartet tells Israel to halt settlement activity

MOSCOW: The Middle East Quartet urged Israel to stop building settlements and set a bold target for a final deal with the Palestinians by 2012 as it tried to kickstart the stalled peace process.

But Israel's foreign minister -- whose country angered the international community by announcing last week the construction of 1,600 new settler homes -- swiftly condemned the statement as harming the chances of a peace accord.

"The Quartet urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said after the meeting of the Quartet of the United States, the United Nations, European Union and Russia.

He said at the meeting hosted by Russia that Israel should also halt natural settlement growth, dismantle outposts erected since March 2001 and refrain from demolitions and evictions in east Jerusalem.

The Israeli plan to build more homes in annexed east Jerusalem led the Palestinians to call for a halt to peace talks and precipitated the worst crisis in US-Israeli relations in years. Key facts on the Israeli settlements

East Jerusalem is the mainly Arab half of the Holy City which was captured and then annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six Day War.

Condemning the new settlement plan, the Quartet noted that Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem was not recognised by the international community and the city's status had to be resolved through negotiations.

With the peace process stagnant, the Quartet also urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks on final status issues with the aim of finding a settlement "within 24 months", Ban said, reading from the Quartet's statement.

He said such a settlement would end "the occupation which began in 1967 and result in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel".

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gave the statement a frosty reception and appeared particularly irked by its explicit target of a peace deal in two years time.

"Peace cannot be imposed artificially and with an unrealistic calendar," Lieberman was quoted as saying in an address to the Jewish community in Brussels. "This type of statement only harms the possibilities of reaching an accord."

He said the timetable gives the Palestinians the wrong impression "that by failing to negotiate directly they will achieve their goals by using all sorts of pretexts."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat welcomed the Quartet's call, but asked also for a mechanism to "make sure that Israel does effectively halt completely all settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem."

The timing of Israel's settlement announcement had infuriated Washington -- Israel's chief ally -- coming as US Vice President Joe Biden visited the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Clinton late Thursday following a tense call last week when she had asked him to order a halt to the settler plans.

Clinton said Friday that the strong US reaction to Israeli settlement plans is "paying off".Related article:Majority of Israelis see Obama as fair:Poll

"What I heard from the prime minister in response for the request we made was useful and productive, and we're continuing our discussions with him and his government," Clinton told AFP and other reporters in Moscow.

"It's one of the reasons Senator (George) Mitchell will be going back to the region and meeting with him in just a few days," Clinton said.

On Friday, Palestinian demonstrators clashed with Israeli security forces in the West Bank and east Jerusalem during anti-settlement protests after the Muslim Friday prayers.

As well as Clinton and Ban, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton attended Friday's meeting, along with former British prime minister Tony Blair, who is the Quartet's representative.

Ashton's visit to Moscow came a day after she made a rare trip by a top foreign official to the Gaza Strip that was overshadowed by fresh violence when rocket fired from the Gaza Strip killed a Thai agricultural worker in Israel.

Ban said the quartet was "deeply concerned" about the situation in Gaza, "including the humanitarian and human rights situation of the civilian population."

Amid an intense flurry of diplomatic activity, Ban is to visit the Middle East, including Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, this weekend while US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell was expected in the region on Sunday.Related article:EU-Israel ministerial meeting next week scrapped