MOSCOW and GAZA // Middle East peace mediators stepped up the pressure on Israel yesterday, calling for a freeze on all new building in East Jerusalem and setting a two-year timetable for the creation of "an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state". The Middle East Quartet, which comprises the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, convened in Moscow for their first formal meeting since Israel announced plans to build 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem last week, a move that enraged Palestinians and chilled US-Israeli relations.
"The Quartet urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activities - and to refrain from demolitions and evictions," the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said yesterday. Palestinians welcomed the statement, but said Israel would need to be monitored to ensure it complied with the freeze. Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said the timetable was unrealistic and would threaten any resolution.
Yesterday's meeting took on additional urgency as violence flared in the Gaza Strip, with Israeli warplanes attacking several targets in response to a deadly rocket attack. Palestinian security officials and witnesses said the Israeli aircraft hit several targets across the coastal strip, but there were no serious injuries, Agence France-Presse reported. A Palestinian group, Ansar al Sunna Brigade, claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed a Thai labourer working on a farm inside Israel near the Gaza border.
Across the Middle East, thousands protested against the settlements. In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Palestinians clashed with security forces. "What does the world expect from the Palestinians when they see their sacred shrines being attacked by the Israelis?" said the Hamas undersecretary for political affairs, Ahmed Yusuf, in reference to recent unrest in Jerusalem. "When Palestinians fire rockets, it's a signal to the Israelis that we won't be silent. And then Israel, like with last night's air strikes, is always looking at ways to escalate the situation."
In Moscow, the Quartet repeated its condemnation of Israel's construction plans but did not escalate its rhetoric. Mr Ban said: "Recalling that the annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognised by the international community, the Quartet underscores that the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties, and condemns the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem."
The announcement by Israel that it had granted approval to build the new homes came as the US vice president, Joe Biden, was in the region trying to invigorate peace talks. Palestinians reacted by saying they could not take part in any talks unless Israel agreed to freeze all settlement building. The US called off a visit to the region by its peace envoy, George Mitchell. However, it appeared Israel might have backed down on its position, with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, offering "confidence-building measures" in a phone call to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. It was not clear what these steps would be, but Mrs Clinton characterised them as "useful and productive". Analysts have suggested they could include reducing the number of West Bank roadblocks, withdrawal of Israeli troops from sections of the West Bank and the release of Palestinian prisoners.
The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, said Israel must comply with the Quartet's call to halt settlement activity as a means to clear the way for peace negotiations. "The statement by the Quartet in which it urges Israel to freeze settlement activity, including natural growth, is very important but what is more important is that Israel should comply so that the peace process can restart," he said in a statement. "The settlement issue is the essence of the problem.'
But Mr Lieberman, Israel's hawkish foreign minister, said the Quartet's call for a 2012 target for a peace deal and an end to settlement building was "unrealistic" and warned that by any "artificial" timetable for peace would ultimately end in disappointment. Jewish settlements on Palestinian territories are one of the major obstacles to continued peace talks. The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state. Israel, which seized East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community, considers the city its "eternal and undivided capital".
Analysts were divided as to whether the Quartet's recommendations would have any effect. Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre, said: "As a recommendation it is quite good but the question is whether they have the ability to force Israel to do it." Mr Sager said the only way to get Israel to adhere to the conditions laid out by the meeting was through reducing military and economic aid.
The Quartet had to "use an economic dimension or stop any military aid - things that Israel can see the value of and make a real political statement", he said. In Gaza, still struggling to recover from Israel's three week assault in 2008-2009, there was little optimism that the Quartet statement would make any difference. Haidar Eid, a political analyst and professor at Gaza's al Azhar University, said: "There have been negotiations going on since the Oslo Accords in 1993, and where are we now 17 years later?
"Right now I don't think the Quartet meeting means anything to Palestinians because we know that if the United States wanted to really pressure Israel to freeze settlements, they could do it. But they won't jeopardise their strategic interests in the region. It is all part of the façade of the peace industry." But Gershon Baskin, founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a pro-peace organisation of Israelis and Palestinians, said the statement was a positive development and a "benchmark" that both sides could work from.
Mr Baskin said that for the Quartet's recommendations to work, conditions needed to be set, including consequences for obstructing the peace process, the establishment of parameters of any eventual peace treaty and "political assurances" for the Palestinians. On the Israeli side, there needed to be guarantees that a Palestinian state "would not threaten Israel". Back in Gaza, however, the meeting just sounded to many people like more inconsequential talking.
"We think of it like a game of Tom and Jerry," said Wael, 26, an employee at a local non-profit organisation. "We fire rockets at them during the day, then they hit us back at night. It's not affecting us anymore, it's just a repeat of the same thing." * The National Kareem Shaheen contributed to this report from Abu Dhabi