Mideast Peace Becomes Focus of U.N. Meeting

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The key international players trying to promote peace in the Middle East meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Friday as the U.N. Security Council opens a high-level debate on Israeli settlements.

The so-called Quartet — the U.N., the U.S., the European Union and Russia — is meeting at a difficult period in the region.

Israel is awaiting a new government, the Palestinians are seriously divided, and President Bush is looking for an agreement by the end of the year, although both Palestinians and Israelis have expressed doubt about achieving that goal.

Quartet members are also scheduled to attend an Iftar — the meal that breaks the day's fast during Ramadan — with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab partners on Friday night.

Ban also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday evening.

Ban is hoping to push Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and Palestinian reconciliation between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and the militant Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Also Thursday, top EU officials met with Ryad Al Malki, the Palestinian minister of foreign affairs, in an attempt to take a greater role moving the peace talks forward.

"This meeting, which took place at crucial time in the peace process, and on the eve of the meeting of the Quartet, provided an opportunity to discuss the European Union's enhanced role in the peace process deepening relations between the European Union and the Palestinian Authority," the EU said in a statement.

But a group of leading aid agencies, including CARE, Save the Children and Christian Aid, issued a report Thursday warning the Quartet process was failing and called for more action and less words.

"The Quartet has fundamentally failed to improve the humanitarian situation on the ground. Unless the Quartet's words are matched by more sustained pressure and decisive action the situation will deteriorate still further. Time is fast running out," David Mepham, director of policy for Save the Children UK, said in a statement.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council will hold an open debate at the ministerial level on the ongoing Israeli settlement building in disputed territory. Saudi Arabia requested the debate to coincide with the General Assembly, which has brought a host of world leaders to New York.

Public speeches are expected from Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, and probably Israel speaking in response, but no council resolution on the matter is expected.

Continued Israeli settlement construction and Israeli security concerns have clouded Middle East peace negotiations. Both Palestinians and Israelis have expressed doubt about achieving an accord before Bush leaves office.

As late as last month Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held out hope of talks succeeding.

"God willing, with the goodwill of the parties, and the tireless work of the parties, we have a good chance of succeeding," Rice said after seeing Israeli and Palestinian leaders and summoning top negotiators for a joint status report.

Israeli President Shimon Peres told the General Assembly in his address Wednesday that despite "stagnation and regression and failure" in the peace process, "Israelis and Arabs are marching toward peace."