Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton hope package will unlock Middle East talks

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The Independent Online

Two members of the international quartet of Middle East mediators suggested today that stalled indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians may be unblocked in coming days.

Speaking after a meeting in Moscow of the group - comprising the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia - quartet envoy Tony Blair told Reuters he hoped for a package of measures to get the talks started.

"I hope very much that in the next few days we will have a package that gives people the sense that, yes, despite all the difficulties of the past few days, it is worth having proximity talks and then those leading to direct negotiations," he said.

Blair declined to give details of the package of measures, saying: "That will become clear as the days unfold."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Moscow for the quartet meeting, also suggested progress. She said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had given a "useful and productive" response to her concerns on the settlement issue during a telephone conversation yesterday. She did not give details.

The latest obstacle to the peace talks came 10 days ago when Israel announced, during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden, that it would build 1,600 new housing units in a part of Jerusalem that it captured in 1967 and annexed unilaterally.

The quartet called for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with the aim of producing an agreement within 24 months to end Israeli occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state.

The Palestinians welcomed the quartet's declaration.

"It is a very important statement. The statement is in full harmony with the Palestinian and the Arab position," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "It is of vital importance that Israel abides by this statement so that the peace process can resume."

The Israeli government declined to comment.

The quartet did not say how it could ensure its calls, which have gone unheeded in the past, would be respected. It promised only to "closely monitor developments in Jerusalem and to keep under consideration additional steps that may be required".

Hours before the quartet met, Israeli aircraft struck at least six targets in the Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled territory the previous day, which killed a Thai worker in Israel.

The quartet's statement condemned the rocket fire and called for an "immediate end to violence and terror".

But it added: "The quartet is deeply concerned by the continuing deterioration in Gaza, including the humanitarian and human rights situation of the civilian population, and stresses the urgency of a resolution to the Gaza crisis."

The group also called on Israel and the Palestinians to avoid "provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric" and told Israel to freeze all settlement building, dismantle outposts erected since March 2001 and halt demolitions in East Jerusalem.

"We are convinced that this was all heard in Israel and that they have correctly understood," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who hosted the meeting, told reporters.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would go to Gaza on Sunday to see the situation for himself. The EU was represented in Moscow by foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Netanyahu's spokesman said Netanyahu had proposed "mutual confidence-building measures by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank" to Clinton, but did not elaborate.

The Palestinians say they will not enter indirect peace talks unless Israel scraps the new settlement plans.

The quartet was formed in 2002 in Spain to assist in mediating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its achievements so far have been meagre, leading some analysts to dismiss it as an expensive club for diplomats.

Moscow had hoped to organise a full-scale international conference on the Middle East this year but the lack of progress on peace talks forced it to settle for the quartet meeting.