Quartet calls on Palestinians, Israelis to return to talks

 WASHINGTON (JTA) – The Middle East "Quartet" called on Israel and the Palestinians to return to direct negotiations and also called for Palestinian development in areas Israel still may claim.

"The Quartet reiterated its call" for the parties "to avoid actions that undermine trust and to focus on positive efforts that can strengthen and improve the climate for a resumption of direct negotiations," said the statement released after representatives of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia met in Washington on Wednesday. The Quartet guides Middle East peace-making.

"Actions that undermine trust" is code for Israeli settlement expansion and Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood recognition in the absence of talks.

Israel has declared its willingness to return to direct talks since October 2010, when the Palestinian Authority suspended talks pending a freeze on settlement expansion.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the call and said he proposed raising the level of the talks to the leaders, between himself and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Quartet statement also called on the parties to "cooperate to facilitate the social and economic development of Area C, which is of critical importance for the viability of a future Palestinian state as well as for its Palestinian inhabitants to be enabled to lead a normal life."

Area C comprises areas of the West Bank that include settlements and areas that are little-populated and that Israel may claim in a permanent-status deal, including the Jordan Valley.

Dennis Ross, a former adviser to President Obama who remains a consultant with the administration, has proposed developing area C to entice the Palestinians back to talks.

The statement condemned rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas, and called on the P.A. to stem incitement and to maintain law and order in the areas it controls.

The statement also "expressed its concern over ongoing settler violence and incitement in the West Bank and calls on Israel to take effective measures, including bringing the perpetrators of such acts to justice."

It also called on donors to the Palestinians to maintain their commitments, and urged resolution of "tax and customs" issues, an allusion to the Israeli practice of withholding funds due to the P.A. when it displeases Israel, as happened recently because of the P.A.’s statehood recognition bid at the U.N.

Relatedly, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State who attended the Quartet meeting, reportedly overrode a congressional hold on $150 million in assistance to the Palestinians.

The hold was placed by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, in part because of the Palestinians’ campaign seeking statehood recognition.

Clinton invoked rarely used powers to lift the hold, National Journal quoted an unidentified State Department official as saying, because the funds provide "critical support to the Palestinian people and those leaders seeking to combat extremism within their society and build a more stable future."

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