Following a French initiative to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority by convening a Middle East peace conference in Paris, the European Union is now advocating an international peace plan as an alternative to a unilateral Palestinian plan to secure state recognition at the UN in September.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, called for the urgent convening of the Middle East Quartet. The Quartet - the U.S., EU, UN and Russia - would gather as a precursor for support for a peace plan based on the Middle East policy speech delivered by President Barack Obama at the State Department last month.
Ashton's letter was coordinated with the governments of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, a senior European diplomat said. The diplomat added that the Americans had rejected the French peace initiative, but EU countries had decided that the U.S. needed to be pushed to advance a peace plan that would head off the Palestinian effort to secure recognition of an independent state at the UN in September.
In Ashton's letter, a copy of which has been obtained by Haaretz, she noted "dramatic developments across the Arab world" and a "positive process of transition." In other countries, however, "regimes are holding on to power, spreading insecurity and instability across the region.
"This situation makes it even more urgent to find a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Ashton added. "Unfortunately, we have not seen any progress on that front."
In an apparent reference to Palestinian efforts at the UN, Ashton wrote: "This is no time for unilateral moves on either side, since this could lead to escalation. This is in nobody's interest, least of all that of the Israeli and Palestinian people who want the opportunity for safety and prosperity for their families."
Referring to Obama's speech at the State Department, Ashton continued: "I believe that what is needed now is a clear signal to the parties, and a reference framework that should enable them to return to the negotiating table. President Obama, in his speech on May 19, laid down two important elements that can be the basis for a resumption of negotiations: Borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, and firm security guarantees."
The EU foreign policy chief also suggested that other key principles supported by the European Union - on Jerusalem and the refugee question - be part of the plan. The EU has advocated that Jerusalem be the capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state.
"I believe we should now meet as Quartet Principals to adopt a statement consolidating these elements and thereby provide the parties with a reference framework," the letter continued. Ashton also advocated an early meeting of the Quartet: "It is critical we make a gesture before the summer, because we need to contribute to a calming of a volatile situation that promises to be even more so as the year progresses."
Secretary of State Clinton and the U.S. administration are not enamored of Ashton's initiative at this point, a senior European diplomat has told Haaretz, adding that the Americans are losing precious time in which to attempt to stop the Palestinians' UN plans for September.
The Americans prefer to secure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's support for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians, based on the Obama State Department address. However, Netanyahu is not expected to respond positively to that suggestion when he meets U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, David Hale, who arrives in Israel tomorrow.
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