Mideast Quartet sounds warning on Egypt

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Turmoil in Egypt makes it all the more imperative that Israelis and Palestinians return to negotiations, the Middle East diplomatic Quartet said on Saturday after a meeting in Germany.

"I don't have to tell you that the events that we have witnessed in the region mean it is hugely important that we are making progress in the Middle East peace process," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

"I believe that regional events should not distract us from that objective for the future. We want to see peace and stability in the region, and we believe that the Middle East peace process is an essential part of that."

After the talks in Munich, Ashton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN head Ban Ki-moon agreed to meet again in March.

Envoys from the four Middle East peace mediators will seek to hold separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Brussels before then, as well as with representatives of the Arab Peace Initiative Committee.

The Quartet, in a statement, called on all parties "to undertake urgently efforts to expedite Israeli-Palestinian and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, which is imperative to avoiding outcomes detrimental to the region."

The Palestinians walked out of peace talks after Israel refused in September to renew a temporary ban on building settlements in the West Bank -- on land earmarked for a future Palestinian state.

The Palestinian Authority meanwhile has been defensive since Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera started releasing thousands of documents purported to show huge concessions offered to Israel behind closed doors.

But the tumultuous events in Egypt threaten to dwarf such issues if, as many in Israel and elsewhere fear, revolts convulsing Egypt end up replacing President Hosni Mubarak's regime with a government hostile to the Jewish state.

A poll published on Thursday indicated that 59 percent of Israelis predicted an Islamic regime in a post-Mubarak Egypt while only 21 percent foresaw a secular democratic government.

After four wars, Egypt signed a peace accord with its neighbour in 1979, and since coming to power in 1981 Mubarak played a key role mediating between Israel and the rest of the Arab world, and the Palestinians in particular.

Clinton on Saturday acknowledged that there was a risk of an authoritarian regime coming to power.

"Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the political process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception, and rigged elections," Clinton said in Munich.

Under international pressure to ease the plight of the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday approved a raft of economic cooperation measures, after a meeting with Quartet envoy Tony Blair.

But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP the proposals were "totally unacceptable."

"If Netanyahu wants to establish mutual trust and peace, he must stop settlement-building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem immediately and recognise the 'terms of reference' of the peace process, starting with the recognition of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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