05/05/2004 By Shlomo Shamir, Haaretz Correspondent and Itim and BPI. 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 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party on Sunday. The United States, United Nations, Russian and European officials also said most sensitive issues must be negotiated by the two sides, a statement apparently aimed at blunting Palestinian criticism of U.S. President George W. 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. The Quartet foreign ministers met in an effort to find ways to revive steps to implement the road map, after the Likud rejected Sharon’s plan to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Speaking after a roughly two-hour meeting at the United Nations headquarters, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the quartet viewed the current situation in the Middle East with „grave concern.” „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 towards 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. Diplomats described the meeting as „the most important the Quartet has ever held.” The four Quartet members are represented by Annan, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, who is representing the EU while Ireland holds the current presidency. Powell: Bush has not abandoned Arabs Bush’s stance on the right of return and the presence of Israeli settlements, outlined in a letter to Sharon last month, was seen by Palestinians as having bargained away two key issues that should have been theirs to negotiate with Israel. It was unclear whether Bush would give written assurances to Jordan’s King Abdullah when they meet on Thursday that such issues must be decided in negotiations. U.S. officials said they were reluctant to provide a letter that might be seen as backing away from Bush’s assurances to Sharon. One official suggested a face-saving compromise might be a statement short of a letter that reaffirms the view that the parties must decide sensitive issues in negotiation. „We are in conversations with our other Arab friends to see what assurances and comments they may need from us to make sure that they know that the president has not abandoned them,” Powell told reporters. Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat expressed satisfthat the quartet had stressed the importance of issues being settled through „negotiations, not dictates.”
But he voiced dismay that it had not criticized more sharply a barrier Israel is building through parts of the West Bank to keep out suicide bombers. „The wall is illegal and it prejudices the final status talks,” Erekat said. Peres: Labor will support only full pull-out plan The Labor Party will support only the full disengagement plan and not a limited version of it in a future Knesset vote, party chairman and opposition chief MK Shimon Peres told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a meeting Tuesday. Peres was referring to recent reports that Sharon was intending to present a truncated pullout plan following the overwhelming defeat of his U.S.-backed unilateral plan, in a referendum of Likud members Sunday. During the meeting, attended by Labor fchairman Dalia Itzik, the prime minister updated Peres on diplomatic and security issues. Peres said earlier in the day that Sharon had been paralyzed by right-wing pressure. „Everything he can get approved won’t be serious, and everything that’s serious won’t get approved,” Peres said. „The only way is to return to the people, to ask the people what they want.” Sharon has been consulting with his ministers, coalition members and the Likud’s Knesset fto formulate an alternative to the plan resoundingly defeated in Sunday’s referendum of Likud supporters, and is considering a more limited pullout.