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Plea over Israel settlement freeze

The Quartet of Middle East peacemakers monitoring the newly started direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have called on Israel to extend its settlement freeze past Sunday, while cautioning both sides to refrain from "provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric".

Senior diplomats from the Quartet - the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - met on the sidelines of the United Nations anti-poverty meeting to discuss a way forward in the negotiations, which have made little visible progress since they resumed earlier this month and are at risk of collapse.

They renewed a vow to help finally achieve peace in the Middle East.

In a statement issued after its meeting, the Quartet said that the "commendable Israeli settlement moratorium instituted last November has had a positive impact and urged its continuation". It encouraged both sides to continue negotiating "in a constructive manner and urged the international community to support their efforts".

Earlier, the Quartet abruptly cancelled a press conference that was to have included former UK prime minister Tony Blair, George Mitchell, the Obama administration's envoy for Middle East peace, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

A senior European official said the meeting with the press was cancelled because other participants were insisting on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's presence among them, but US and UN officials insisted the press conference did not go ahead for technical reasons.

From their meeting, the Quartet principals went into talks with officials from the Arab League at which they sought to encourage continued support from the Palestinians' neighbours in reaching a peace accord, a spokesman said.

But on the key issue of whether Israel will extend a partial ban on settlement building in the West Bank, territory the Palestinians want for a future state, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon indicated that Israel disagrees with the view that construction is a major impediment to the talks.

"Settlements have never been an issue, because once we agree on borders everything will be obvious, so let's concentrate on the real issues and not just put the obstacle in the settlements," he told reporters on the sidelines of the Quartet's talks.

The Palestinians have threatened to walk out of the peace talks if the settlement slowdown - due to expire next week - is not extended.

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