The United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union on Tuesday praised Israeli leader Ariel Sharon for showing what they called "political courage" by ending Israel's 38-year occupation of Gaza with the peaceful withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers.
The high-level coordinating group on Middle East peace -- known as the quartet -- also voiced "appreciation" to the Palestinian Authority for keeping the peace during the withdrawal, but in the same statement pressed the authority to crack down on Palestinian militants. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed to Palestinians seeking to participate in the political process not to participate in "armed group or militia activities."
But Annan and the quartet stopped short of supporting an Israeli demand that the Islamic Resistance Movement, a militant group also known as Hamas, be excluded from legislative elections scheduled for January.
The quartet meeting -- which included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw -- met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in an effort to reinvigorate the Palestinian and Israeli peace process.
The group urged Palestinian and Israeli leaders to resume negotiations on the U.S.-backed "road map," a political blueprint outlining a path toward a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group also applauded the role of the U.S. security adviser, Lt. Gen. William Ward, in coordinating the Israeli and Palestinian security agencies to ensure Israel's bloodless evacuation from Gaza.
"This meeting was very focused on how to move ahead, how to take the momentum of what has been a successful disengagement from the Gaza to build institutions that will form the foundation of a Palestinian state," Rice said after the meeting.
Rice said the group discussed a proposal by former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn, President Bush's envoy on aid to the Palestinian territories, to invest "substantial sums of money" into public works projects that "improve the economic prospects of the Palestinian people."
Rice joined other quartet partners in voicing concern over Israel's construction of a security barrier separating the Israeli and Palestinian populations, and she urged Sharon's government to halt the establishment of new Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands.
Today's meeting capped a rare week of diplomatic plaudits at the United Nations for Israel, which is traditionally the subject of censure by its European critics and Arab adversaries in the General Assembly and the Security Council.
Sharon was greeted last week with a handshake at the United Nations by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan, a tough critic of Israel. The exchange followed an unusual high-level meeting between the two countries' foreign ministers in Istanbul. The meeting was brokered by Turkey, one of Israel's closest allies in the Muslim world.
Pakistan and other Muslim countries previously shunned Israel, and some of Israel's Arab adversaries have portrayed Sharon as a warmonger and war criminal.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom sought to parlay Israel's Gaza withdrawal into broader diplomatic recognition in the Muslim world. He also announced Israel's intention to seek a Security Council seat, although the first opportunity will not arise until 2017.
Shalom said Tuesday in an address to the General Assembly that he has met with more than 10 foreign ministers from the Muslim world, including publicly announced sessions with Tunisia's and Qatar's foreign ministers. The contacts, he noted, are growing "at a rate never seen before."
"Unfortunately, many of our ties with the Arab and Muslim world are still deep in the shadows, away from the public eye," he said. "Today, I call on my Arab and Muslim colleagues to bring our contacts into the light of day."
Although several Arab leaders and ministers publicly welcomed Israel's Gaza pullout, they also demanded that Israel complete its withdrawal from all the Arab lands it has captured since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Kuwait's foreign minister, Sabah Salem Sabah, said Tuesday that Israel's action should be viewed as a "first step" leading to an end of Israel's occupation of all Arab lands and to the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.