GAZA CITY - Palestinian foreign minister Mahmud al-Zahar called on the so-called Quartet of major diplomatic players to open a dialogue Friday with his democratically elected government, his spokesman said.
"Foreign minister Zahar sent a letter to the members of the Quartet (the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States) asking them to open a dialogue with the Palestinian government in order to reach stability and calm in the region," Taher al-Nunu said.
Major powers endorse US initiative
Major powers endorsed a US plan Friday to accelerate efforts to achieve an Arab-Iraeli peace deal and establish a Palestinian state.
But the initiative was marred by renewed Palestinian factional violence, a rift with Russia over whether to bring Syria into the process and a weary skepticism that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are strong enough to lead their people to peace.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted the meeting of her counterparts from Russia, the European Union and United Nations following a day of clashes in the Gaza Strip between forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas, and the radical Islamic movement Hamas.
At least 25 people died in the fighting before the two sides agreed on a truce late Friday, but there was no certainty the ceasefire would stop the worst violence yet in a year-long power struggle between Abbas' secular Fatah party and Hamas.
In a final communique read out by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the so-called Mideast Quartet expressed its "deep concern" over the factional fighting and called for an end to continuing Palestinian militant attacks on Israel.
But the main purpose of the meeting, the first in five months for the largely inactive group, was to provide backing to Rice's effort to jump-start the Quartet's still-born 2003 "road map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The plan envisaged a three-phase effort focused first on ending Palestinian attacks on Israel and restricting Israeli activities inside the occupied territories and then moving on to steps towards the establishment of a Palestinian state, a goal it hoped to achieve in 2005.
But the plan never moved beyond stage one.
On Friday, the group supported Rice's new approach to move forward on two fronts -- strengthening Abbas' ability to govern and ensure security while, in parallel, holding talks on critical "final status" issues like the borders of a Palestinian state and the future of Jerusalem.
"There is simply no reason to avoid the subject of how we get to a Palestinian state," Rice said at a joint press conference with Ban, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
Rice declined to set any new timetable for the process.
Friday's meeting was a prelude to a three-way meeting later this month between Rice, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Washington has billed the encounter as the premiere for its new peace drive, but given the political weakness of both Abbas and Olmert, success is far from guaranteed.
Although he is the elected Palestinian president, Abbas saw his authority eclipsed when Hamas won elections a year ago and gained control of the self-rule government.
The Quartet responded by suspending critical aid to the government, provoking an economic breakdown in the territories.
Olmert has been severely weakened by his perceived mismanagement of last year's war against the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
"We're doing this in an environment where, frankly, there is a lot of stress on each of the parties," a senior US official acknowledged.
"The conditions are such that expectations may outstrip the ability of the parties right now to deal with their situation," he said.
Steinmeier, participating because Germany currently holds the rotating EU presidency, was equally cautious.
"We are realistic enough to know it's not something that can be achieved overnight," he said.
Abbas has been trying for months to negotiate a unity government pact with Hamas which would meet the Quartet's conditions for lifting the aid embargo -- recognition of Israel, a renunciation of violence and compliance with past peace agreements with the Jewish state.
Hamas has refused.
The Quartet on Friday reaffirmed the boycott would remain in place until a Palestinian government that agrees to the principles is in place.
But that unity frayed when Russia argued publicly in favor of opening a dialogue with Syria -- which hosts Hamas' hardline leadership -- a stance Rice has ruled out.
"Syria could play a constructive role," Lavrov said, calling the "boycotts and isolation" backed by Washington "counterproductive."
Both Hamas and Fatah condemned the Quartet's aid boycott stance on Saturday, with Hamas calling it "decisions that ignore reality" and Fatah saying it had hoped "the oppressive siege on the Palestinian people" would be lifted.