Khatib joins Quartet meeting

FOREIGN MINISTER Abdul Ilah Khatib left Monday for New York to join a meeting today of the Quartet of diplomatic powers seeking Middle East peace and hoping to revive its stalled efforts and unify its approach to the  new Palestinian leadership.

Khatib was expected to call on top diplomats of the US, EU, UN and Russia to help activate the peace process and restart talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported. Khatib will also hold talks with US officials in Washington.

The Quartet will confer on the increasingly dim prospects for implementing their peace roadmap  aimed at the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

They will also try to narrow apparent differences in their view of Western assistance to the Palestinian government formed by Hamas, which Washington and the EU consider a “terrorist organisation.”

On Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Quartet to resume financial aid and reiterated his willingness to enter immediate negotiations with Israel, according to Agence France-Presse.

Abbas wrote in a letter to the Quartet that “the payment of aid and financial support for the Palestinian Authority should resume in order to avoid a real humanitarian crisis,” his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said. He also expressed his willingness for “immediate negotiations with Israel in order to implement the roadmap.”

Although the United States and the European Union have cut all direct aid to the beleaguered Hamas-run administration, Russia has taken a softer line and the European Union has been searching for a compromise.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will hash over the Quartet’s next moves in talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Also due to attend were Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European commissioner for external relations, Ursula Plassnik of Austria, which holds the EU rotating presidency, and the foreign ministers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Annan called for the meeting with peace hopes thwarted by Hamas’ refusal to accede to Quartet demands that it abandon its armed struggle and recognise the right of Israel to exist.

The Quartet had originally warned that Hamas’ intransigence would affect Western aid. But cracks in its unity have surfaced with a crisis brewing over payment of salaries to Palestinian government workers.

Russia last month called the US and EU decision to withhold assistance a mistake and on Saturday underlined its dissent by sending a $10 million grant to the office of the Palestinian president.

“One of the Quartet’s main subjects [of discussion] will of course be the worsening of the humanitarian and socio-economic crisis in the Palestinian territories,”  Russian foreign ministry spokesman said on Sunday.

The Quartet must “find solutions to end the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories and protect the Palestinian institutions created under the framework of the peace process,” he added.

France has proposed creation of a special World Bank account to channel salary payments to the 160,000 Palestinian civil servants and avoid a critical breakdown in services in the territories.

“We [are trying] now to set up an international mechanism to send aid to the Palestinians,” the European Union’s Ferrero-Waldner told reporters in Cairo after a meeting Saturday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit.

The Americans have reacted coolly to the Paris proposal, which State Department spokesman Sean McCormack insisted they had not seen although French President Jacques Chirac sent a letter to all parties Wednesday.

McCormack sidestepped renewed questions on the idea Friday, saying: “Certainly, if somebody wants to bring up that kind of proposal, we are going to listen to what they have to say.”

The United States has also rebuffed Abbas’ call for immediate talks on the roadmap, maintaining that the refusal by Hamas to renounce violence left the Israelis with no real negotiating partner.

Abbas, whom Washington says it respects as a Palestinian “moral authority,” is trying to head off a plan by the new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to unilaterally fix his country’s borders.

But since Hamas came to power, the US administration has retreated somewhat from its insistence that such final-status issues be negotiated. Rice said in March she wouldn’t reject Olmert’s plan out of hand.

US officials have said they won’t have any dealings with Hamas until it meets theuartet’s demand. But some Middle East experts here are urging the Americans to take a more flexible line.

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