Top international diplomats meeting in Moscow on Friday called on Israel and the Palestinians to return to peace negotiations with a goal of reaching a final settlement that would create an independent Palestinian state within 24 months.
They reiterated their condemnation of Israel's latest move to add Jewish housing in disputed east Jerusalem but did not escalate criticism of the Jewish state.
"The Quartet urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activities ... and to refrain from demolitions and evictions," said a statement read by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It "condemns the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in east Jerusalem."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded to the condemnation by saying that "the Quartet's statement ignores the experiences of the past 16 years and does not take into account that peace must be constructed from the ground up, with practical actions on the ground."
"You cannot force peace artificially, in an unrealistic timetable," said Lieberman and added, "Such announcements only distance the goal of achieving a true settlement between Israel and Palestinians by giving the Palestinian side the false impression that feet dragging and refusal to sit at the negotiations table under false pretence will bring them closer to their goal."
But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat commended the Quartet for its condemnation of the Israeli construction plans.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also called on Israel to halt all construction in settlements – including that explained by "natural growth", and to stop evacuating and demolishing Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem. He said the Quartet's statement was "very important", and added Israel must heed it in order to allow a relaunching of peace talks.
Clinton satisfied with PM's response
Joining the UN chief at the Moscow meeting were US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and the Quartet's special representative, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The Israeli announcement infuriated both Washington and the Palestinians, but Clinton said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had given a "useful and productive" response to her concerns during a telephone conversation on Thursday. She did not give details.
The Quartet's quartet statement also condemned the rocket fire from Gaza and called for an "immediate end to violence and terror" but 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."
Lavrov told a joint news conference that the Israelis and Palestinians should move first to indirect talks, followed by face-to-face negotiations. Those indirect talks were to have started last week but were stalled by reaction to Israel's announcement of new housing in east Jerusalem.
Quartet meeting in Moscow. Meager results so far (Photo: AFP)
Clinton said she expects to see Netanyahu in Washington next week. "We are all committed to the launching of proximity talks between the Israelis and Palestinians," Clinton told reporters.
A spokesman for Netanyahu had no comment on the statement.
George Mitchell, the US Mideast peace envoy, is to meet in coming days with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in hopes of getting the process restarted. Mitchell attended Friday's talks.
The fragile situation is Gaza was one of the key focuses of the Quartet's formal statement. The diplomats expressed concern at the humanitarian situation there.
The air force responded early Friday to a rocket attack by Gaza militarist the day before by striking six targets in southern Gaza. The IDF identified the targets as three weapons-smuggling tunnels; two other tunnels that militants were digging to infiltrate into Israel; and a weapons workshop. No injuries were reported.
The rocket and the Israeli retaliation raised the specter of further conflagration at a time of renewed international focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Roni Sofer, Ali Waked, Reuters, and the Associated Press contributed to this report