In Jerusalem, EU's Ashton Says Peace Possible by Sept

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Tuesday said the international community still sought to achieve a peace deal and a Palestinian state by September, despite the region's political turmoil.

Despite the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the resignation of the Palestinian cabinet as well as Saab Erakat, their chief negotiator, Ashton said the goal was still achievable.

"It's a timeframe that everybody has signed up to," she told reporters in Jerusalem ahead of talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

"I think that we have to try and reach that target," she said, while admitting it would be "challenging."

Ashton flew in for a one-day visit aimed at galvanizing both sides into restarting peace negotiations which hit an impasse late September and look unlikely to resume any time soon.

The deadline for achieving a peace deal was initially set by U.S. President Barack Obama when he launched American-sponsored direct peace talks last September 2, only for the process to be suspended three weeks later.

The Middle East peace Quartet, which groups the European Union, United States, Russia and United Nations, earlier this month reiterated its support for "concluding these negotiations by September 2011."

Ashton met with her Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman on Tuesday before setting off for afternoon meetings in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where she first held talks with Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki.

"The analysis that I've just put to Foreign Minister Lieberman is that when you do have a situation of change ... It's also a moment to reflect on whether it's time now to see progress on this issue, on these (peace) talks," she said.

Israeli public radio quoted the firebrand Lieberman as telling his guest that the international community must find a way to block Iran's nuclear ambitions before asking Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

After her Ramallah talks, Ashton was to return to Jerusalem for an evening meeting with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The visit is part of a Middle East tour in the context of two massive popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that deposed their longtime presidents and are shifting the region's strategic balance.

"The purpose is to recognize that there are changes going on," Ashton said.

"We've seen significant changes in Tunisia and of course in Egypt where the Egyptian people are now moving forward to determine their own future and where there's an opportunity for us to try and engage better and more quickly on resolving the issue of the Middle East peace process."

Her trip also comes 10 days after a meeting in Munich, Germany, of top diplomats from the Quartet.

At those talks, the Quartet peacemakers called on all parties "to undertake urgently efforts to expedite Israeli-Palestinian" peace, terming it imperative because of the political turmoil in the region.

The Quartet diplomats are to meet again in March, before which their envoys are expected to hold separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Brussels.

Ashton's visit comes a day after Salam Fayyad and his government submitted their resignation to Abbas, who reappointed Fayyad and asked him to form a new cabinet ahead of elections planned for September.

Erakat on Saturday resigned as chief Palestinian negotiator, and the Palestinians have decided to close their Negotiations Support Unit after thousands of confidential documents on peace talks with Israel were leaked to Al-Jazeera and the London Guardian.

Source: Agence France Presse

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