JERUSALEM – Sponsors of an internationally backed Mideast peace plan will send their foreign ministers to the region next week in hopes of restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks in the wake of Yasser Arafat's (search) death.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (search) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (search) will go to the West Bank next week, after Monday's visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell (search). The Spanish and German foreign ministers also are expected in coming weeks, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said.
"All of these important foreign ministers are coming to meet the Palestinian leadership and to talk about an action plan for the coming period," Shaath said.
The flurry of high-level visits was the latest sign that, with Arafat gone, the international community is ready to dive back into Mideast diplomacy and get the so-called "road map" peace plan back on track. The plan, which aims to create an independent Palestinian state by 2005, has been stalled since being signed in June 2003.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who refused to negotiate with Arafat, is instead moving forward with a planned unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements next year. Palestinians fear the plan is an Israeli ruse to maintain control over most of the West Bank.
Shaath said the upcoming talks would focus on ways to incorporate the Gaza pullout into the peace plan. The Palestinians also want support in reaching a cease-fire with Israel, ensuring upcoming presidential elections go smoothly and restructuring the myriad Palestinian security services, he said.
Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said next week's meetings would focus on how to move forward in the post-Arafat era.
"Everyone is very excited. Now that he's not there, there is renewed momentum," Regev said, adding: "We want the 'road map' back on track, too."
The "Quartet" of road map sponsors includes the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Quartet officials also are expected to meet on the sidelines of an Iraq conference in Egypt next week.
Also next week, Egypt's foreign minister is scheduled to visit Israel for talks on the Gaza withdrawal. Egypt has acted as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians ahead of the pullout.
Israeli officials said the trip by Ahmed Aboul Gheit remains on track, despite Israel's mistaken killing of three Egyptian policemen early Thursday near the Gaza border. Israel apologized for what it called a "professional and operational" mishap.
Aboul Gheit, who will be making his first visit to Israel since his June appointment, will travel with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has been mediating between Israel and the Palestinians on the Gaza plan.
The peace plan requires the Palestinians to consolidate their security forces and crack down on militant groups — two steps that Arafat refused to take. Israel, meanwhile, has refused its obligation to freeze settlement construction and dismantle unauthorized outposts.
Since Arafat's death, Sharon has said the Gaza pullout remains on schedule, but he has hinted he would coordinate the withdrawal if a new moderate Palestinian leadership takes over. Israeli officials have long said they would revive the peace plan if conditions permit but say they want to wait for the new Palestinian leadership to prove itself.
International pressure appears to be building on Israel to return to the negotiating table even sooner.
Last week, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged to rally global support for an independent Palestinian state, although they said progress would depend on the next Palestinian leadership.
Israeli officials have said they are pleased so far with the efforts by the caretaker Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to ensure calm after Arafat's death. It remains unclear, however, whether Abbas can coax militants into halting attacks on Israel.
Abbas, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and other leaders continued talks Thursday with rival factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Qureia pledged to maintain order ahead of the Jan. 9 presidential elections, saying all Palestinian groups recognize the need to ensure a peaceful vote.
"We should avoid chaos. We should put an end to the chaos," he said. "Everyone should be obliged to carry out law and order and it is possible."
Powell, speaking to reporters in Brazil on Wednesday, said he planned to talk with Sharon about helping the Palestinians carry out the election. He also said he was happy Palestinian officials were talking about the need to end violence.
"But the real test is how they actually perform," he said.
In other developments, Israel released the top Hamas leader in the West Bank, Sheik Hassan Yussef, from prison Thursday after a 28-month sentence for being a member of the outlawed organization. His release is expected to have little impact on Hamas policies.
Also, the Israeli military wants to exhume the body of a 13-year-old Palestinian girl as part of its investigation into an officer accused of shooting her repeatedly at point-blank range to make sure she was dead, a lawyer for the girl's family said Thursday.
The family said it would not agree because they believed the army simply wanted to clear the officer. The military refused to comment, citing a court gag order.
Along the Gaza-Egypt border, a tunnel used by Palestinian weapons smugglers collapsed, burying several people inside, Palestinian and Israeli military officials said. There was no immediate word on the casualties.