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Quartet urges full gaza withdrawal { May 4 2004 }

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Mideast 'Quartet' Urges Full Gaza Withdrawal
Tue May 4, 2004 03:17 PM ET

By Arshad Mohammed
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The quartet of Middle East mediators called on Tuesday for a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and said the plan presented a "rare moment of opportunity" despite its rejection by Israeli conservatives.

The U.S., U.N., Russian and European officials also said most sensitive issues must be negotiated by the two sides, an implicit rebuke to President Bush's assurances that Israel could not be expected to give up all its West Bank settlements or to accept the return of Palestinian refugees.

Speaking after a more than two-hour meeting at the United Nations headquarters, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the quartet viewed the current situation in the Middle East with "grave concern."

Israel's right-wing Likud party on Sunday rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull out of all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of 120 in the West Bank, denting U.S. hopes to revive the quartet's stymied "road map" peace plan that aims create a Palestinian state by 2005.

Sharon consulted ministers about amending his plan but a senior Israeli official said he wanted to push it through with as few changes as possible despite Israeli newspaper reports he might shut only three Gaza settlements and two in the West Bank.

"We took positive note of Prime Minister Sharon's announced intention to withdraw from all Gaza settlements and parts of the West Bank," Annan said, reading a statement endorsed by the quartet. "This should provide a rare moment of opportunity in the search for peace in the Middle East."

"This initiative, which must lead to a full Israeli withdrawal and complete end of occupation in Gaza, can be a step toward achieving the two-state vision and could restart progress on the road map," he added.

"We also note that no party should take unilateral actions that seek to predetermine issues that can only be resolved through negotiation and agreement between the two parties," he added.


Bush's stance on the right of return and the presence of Jewish settlements, outlined in a letter to Sharon, was widely seen by Palestinians as having bargained away two key issues that should have been theirs to negotiate with Israel.

Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets in recent weeks and Israel's high-profile assassination of two leaders of the Hamas militant group have made peace seem ever more elusive.

While declining to comment on Bush's stance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that "all issues in the final status, in particular refugees and the borders, must be solved through negotiations through the parties."

Lavrov, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Annan and European foreign policy chief Javier Solana met at the United Nations for their first "quartet" talks since September.

"Their feeling is that Sharon's unilateral initiative should be seized and built on ... the Americans have been leaning on Sharon to internationalize it," said a U.N. official who asked not to be named.

"But what happens on the ground is what matters. No one really knows what is going to happen next. If Sharon does come up with a watered down version, that has to be a new starting point for them," the U.N. official added.

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