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Moscow to host Mid-East meeting

Tony Blair on the Middle East peace process

The Quartet of Middle East mediators plan to hold a conference in Moscow early next year to push forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The proposal follows a meeting of Quartet envoys from the US, the UN, the EU and Russia in Egypt.

Palestinian and Israeli leaders briefed them on the progress of their talks.

Analysts say the proposal is a tacit admission there will be no peace deal before US President George W Bush leaves office, as he had hoped.

At last year's US-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland, the Israelis and Palestinians committed to reaching a peace agreement by the time Mr Bush stepped down in January 2009.

But there has been little progress since then.

The two sides did agree on Sunday - in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh - that negotiations should continue to reach a comprehensive two-state solution, as outlined at the Annapolis talks.

'Great opportunity'

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Moscow conference - planned for Spring next year - must be a step forward in reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

By then, Mr Obama will be in office and February's Israeli elections will have produced a new government.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon summarised the briefing the Quartet had received from Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

He said the two sides had reached agreement that there would be no peace deal until all issues between them were settled.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian Authority President Abbas is locked in a feud with Hamas

The core issues dividing the two sides include the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on perhaps her last visit to the region while in office, said she would hand over to her successor in private and then "you won't hear any more from me".

The Quartet's envoy, Tony Blair, said it was important that the incoming Obama administration "grips this issue from day one" and makes the Middle East an urgent priority.

The former UK Prime Minister told BBC World TV there was now "a platform on which to build - I wouldn't put it higher than that".

"I think for the new president coming in now, there is an great obligation obviously, but also a great opportunity," he said.

"And from all the conversations that I've had with Barack Obama over the past period, I'm sure that he treats this obligation and opportunity really seriously and wants to move it forward."

Further hampering the peace process is the feud between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.

Hamas pushed President Abbas's Fatah out of the Gaza Strip last year and has now boycotted separate Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks that were to have begun in Cairo on Monday.

Hamas officials accused Mr Abbas of arresting hundreds of its members in the Fatah-controlled West Bank.

Israel, the US and the EU consider Hamas a terrorist organisation and will not meet its representatives.

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