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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 May, 2004, 22:33 GMT 23:33 UK
Quartet emphasises the positive

By Jon Leyne
BBC correspondent in New York

Quartet leaders
Leaders emphasised areas of agreement, not differences
This was hardly the start of a bold new peace initiative. But the members of the Middle East Quartet did succeed in patching over their differences.

At their meeting in New York, the representatives of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia, chose a time-honoured diplomatic formula.

They emphasised what they could agree on, not their points of difference.

They described the plan of the Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, to withdraw from Gaza as "a rare moment of opportunity in the search for peace in the Middle East."

That was hardly the view two and a half weeks ago, when America's allies were infuriated by President Bush's decision to endorse the Sharon plan.

The quartet welcomes and encourages [Mr Sharon's disengagement plan]... which should provide a rare moment of opportunity in the search for peace in the Middle East
Quartet statement
This meeting of the Quartet was scheduled after that - an opportunity for the Europeans, the UN and Russia, to make their objections clear to the United States.

In the meantime, tempers have cooled, and Ariel Sharon's plans are looking much less certain, following their defeat in a referendum of Likud party members at the weekend.

So now the members of the Quartet have focussed on a series of practical steps, designed to help keep order in Gaza, if and when the Israelis finally do withdraw.

They are offering to help the Palestinians maintain security there, and they are promising another initiative to help deal with the Palestinians' humanitarian needs, and revive the Palestinian economy.

'Hope in short supply'

No-one is pretending there were any breakthroughs.

"Hope is in short supply," said one of the European Union representatives, the Irish foreign minister, Brian Cowan.

Phase 1 (originally intended to take place by May 2003): End to violence against Israelis and Palestinians; Palestinian political reform; Israeli withdrawal and freeze on settlement expansion; Palestinian elections
Phase 2: (June-Dec 2003) Creation of an independent Palestinian state; international conference and international monitoring of compliance with roadmap
Phase 3 (2004-2005): Second international conference; permanent status agreement and end of conflict; agreement on final borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements; Arab states to agree to peace deals with Israel

But the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, used the occasion to provide reassurance to the Palestinians about Washington's intentions.

President Bush "has not abandoned their hope for a Palestinian state," said Mr Powell.

"We made some progress," said the European Union foreign affairs commissioner, Chris Patten. "But whether or not we can really make progress on the ground will depend on the Palestinians and Israelis themselves."

On recent form, that is not a likely prospect.

For the moment, the main purpose of the Middle East Quartet has been to prevent this issue further dividing the international community.

It has had no more success than anyone else in actually bringing peace any nearer for the region.

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