Foreign Ministers Meeting Seeks Mideast Solution

Despite a hardening in Israeli and Palestinian positions, the Bush administration will host a conference of top U.S., U.N., Russian and European ministers next month with the aim of developing a roadmap for peacemaking.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the meeting of the so-called Quartet will be held in Washington on Dec. 20.

Besides working on details of a pathway to Palestinian statehood by 2005, the conference is expected to consider ways of promoting reform within the Palestinian leadership.

Secretary of State Colin Powell will host the meeting, with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and top European Union officials expected to attend.

The announcement coincides with another surge of violence in the region, to which Boucher responded with a statement upholding Israel's right to defend itself while also suggesting again that it act with care in countering Palestinian terror.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent a deputy, Natan Sharansky, to Washington earlier this month to tell Vice President Dick Cheney and Powell that peacemaking should be deferred until the Palestinian Authority moves toward reform.

At a minimum, Sharansky said, peace efforts should be put on hold until Israel and the Palestinians hold elections in January.

But Powell decided to proceed anyway. He has held to the position that peacemaking cannot be set aside while terror is rampant -- a view shared by a number of European and Arab governments.

The Arabs hope the Israeli voters will remove Sharon and install Amram Mitzna, the Labor party leader, as prime minister.

On Monday, the former general he would "disengage" Israel from the West Bank and Gaza with a security border.

The Palestinians want to take over the territory for a state, and establish a capital in East Jerusalem.

President Bush has endorsed statehood for the Palestinians but has insisted on an end to corruption and ties to terror in the Palestinian Authority as conditions. He also has called for new leadership to replace Yasser Arafat.

The administration has moved slowly along the peace track, insisting first on a sharp decrease in terror attacks on Israel civilians.

A State Department spokesman, Philip T. Reeker, said Thursday, "Progress toward the realization of Palestinian aspirations and the realization of the president's vision of two states living side by side in security is simply impossible while violence and heinous attacks continue."

Reeker referred to a Palestinian suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus Thursday.