A high-level coordinating group for Middle East peace met here Wednesday and bemoaned the failure of an 18-month-old peace plan supported by the Bush administration to gain much traction. "The situation on the ground for both Palestinians and Israelis remains extremely difficult and no significant progress has been achieved," the group, known as the Quartet, said in a statement issued just hours after another suicide bombing in Jerusalem.
In one sign the peace plan is effectively stillborn, the senior diplomats from the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States who form the Quartet dispensed with the news conference normally held after such sessions. Before the meeting, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters "we're going to do everything we can to see progress on the 'road map,' " the diplomatic term for the peace plan. "It is the only way forward."
But the Quartet communique issued after the meeting offered no new ideas for how to restart peace efforts.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pressed ahead with his own plan, a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and last week he told an Israeli newspaper that the road map is effectively dead and that once Israel leaves Gaza there is likely to be "a very long period in which nothing else will happen." The Bush administration, along with the Quartet, has expressed hope that the Gaza withdrawal would be an opportunity to prod movement on the broader peace plan.
In yesterday's statement, the Quartet reiterated "the withdrawal from Gaza should be full and complete and be undertaken in a manner consistent with the Roadmap, as a step toward an end to the Israeli occupation that began in 1967."
The Quartet appeared to blame both sides for inaction. The statement expressed "deep concern" that "genuine action" was still needed to empower an independent Palestinian prime minister and overhaul the Palestinian Authority. It also urged Israel to implement its obligations under the peace plan, such as a dismantling of settlement outposts and a freeze on settlement groups. "The lack of action in this regard is a cause for concern," the statement said.
Since 2002, President Bush has called on Israel to freeze its settlements, a point he reiterated Tuesday in his speech before the United Nations. But Bush earlier this year also handed Sharon a letter in which he said Israel could expect to keep some settlements in a peace deal, and administration officials are negotiating with the Israeli government on a formula that would allow for construction and growth of populations within existing settlement areas.
The Quartet lauded Egypt for agreeing to retrain some Palestinian police officers so Palestinian security services will be prepared to take over in Gaza. In an interview here Monday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he will visit Israel next month to lay out steps he said must be taken by the Israelis to ensure Egypt's full participation in the Gaza withdrawal.
Gheit said the Israelis must agree to a "full and comprehensive withdrawal," which includes ending Israeli control over the border between Gaza and Egypt, allowing Palestinians jurisdiction over their airport and seaport and providing unfettered access between the West Bank and Gaza. He said Egypt would support the use of international monitors, including from the United States, over borders and ports to ease Israeli concerns.
U.S. involvement in the peace process has been stymied by the U.S. presidential election, Gheit added. "It is always so when you have an election," he said. "But thank God that the 2nd of November is approaching fast."