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The Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators renewed its call for Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on Thursday, two days after U.S. President Barack Obama appeared to back off this as a precondition for new peace talks.

The Quartet - the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia - said they shared Obama's sense of urgency in seeking a durable Middle East peace.

"The Quartet urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth; and to refrain from provocative actions in East Jerusalem," the group said in a statement.

Israel has said that some settlements should be allowed to expand, a process it argues merely allows for the natural growth of the population, but which the Palestinians and the United States have both rejected.

Obama, who this week personally sought to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to relaunch talks, called on Tuesday for "restraint" in settlement.

That was seen as an apparent softening that reflected a U.S. approach to push hard for negotiations without preconditions.

Each side is still demanding that the other make concessions first, dimming immediate hopes for progress.

The Quartet also called on the Palestinian Authority to improve law and order, fight violent extremism, and end incitement.

The group urged both sides to comply with their obligations under the 2003 Roadmap peace agreement "irrespective of reciprocity - to create the conditions for the resumption of negotiations in the near term."