United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that Middle East peace talks should resume despite an outbreak of violence among Palestinian factions.
Rice was speaking after a meeting of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators, in which the U.S., Russia, United Nations and European Union voiced "deep concern" about violence between rival Palestinian factions that has killed 24 Palestinians in the last 24 hours.
"The Quartet expressed its deep concern at the violence among Palestinians and called for respect for law and order," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, reading a statement on behalf of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.
"It doesn't help to talk about a timetable, but it does help to talk about a commitment," Rice said after meeting with world powers for a strategy session on the Middle East.
"Despite that violence, there's simply no reason to avoid the subject of how we get to a Palestinian state," Rice said after a meeting at the State Department with foreign ministers from Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Syria could play a constructive role in helping to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Rice expressed little enthusiasm for such a prospect. "I hope that it [Syria] will in fact try and play a positive role rather than a negative one," she told reporters.
The Bush administration has resisted expanding diplomatic ties with Syria, which it blames for supporting radical Islamic groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
The international leaders did not back away from the conditions they set for the Hamas-led Palestinian government to receive vital overseas financial aid and international political recognition.
Those conditions include recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and embracing prior agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
The U.S. State Department said it expected the talks among the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union to reaffirm efforts to isolate the Hamas-led Palestinian government through a year-old international aid embargo.
The Hamas-led Palestinian government condemned the Quartet on Friday,
accusing the group of doing Washington's bidding and of punishing the Palestinian people.
"This position does not contribute to bringing security, stability and calm in the region, but it contributes to increasing the suffering of the Palestinian people," the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to outline U.S. plans to other Quartet members for a proposed meeting later this month among herself, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Speaking before the Quartet talks, Rice told reporters they would cover "how to make progress toward the establishment of a Palestinian state."
Referring to the ongoing factional violence between Hamas and Fatah, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said it was up to the Palestinians to settle their differences and that it was still worth trying to promote peace with Israel despite the internecine violence.
The militant group Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, swept to power in Palestinian elections in January 2006. Efforts by the U.S.-backed Abbas to form a unity government with Hamas that might be more interested in negotiating peace with Israel have so far failed.
"If you wait for all of those political-to-political divisions to be completely bridged or healed you don't know how long that is going to take," McCormack told reporters. "In the meantime, everybody can agree on the fact that there should be a Palestinian state and you can work on ... aspects of that."
Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas urged the Quartet in a letter to engage in talks with the Palestinian government to try to end internal fighting.
"We call upon you to engage in a constructive and important dialogue with us to help end the state of tension in the region and to push all parties to reach the status of stability that will lead to the recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people," al-Zahar's aide quoted the letter as saying.
The Quartet supports the U.S.-backed "road map," which was drawn up in 2003 and provided step-by-step benchmarks toward the goal of a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by 2005, a date that has long since passed.
McCormack said the U.S. goal was to work within the context of the road map but he said harder issues that were further down the line could be tackled along with more immediate concerns such as Israeli checkpoints.
The United States is working to embolden Abbas in the face of opposition from Hamas and wants the Quartet's help on this, particularly in building up the PA chairman's security forces which Washington is helping train and equip.
While Quartet members are united in pushing for a revived peace process, there is disagreement over whether a Western aid blockade to the Hamas-led government should continue. Russia called this week for the aid freeze to be lifted and the United Nations and European Union are also questioning it.
However, McCormack said expected the Quartet to "reaffirm the principles" of its January 30, 2006 decision to make aid to the Hamas-led government contingent on its renouncing violence, recognizing Israel and respecting past peace agreements.