JERUSALEM - With a year-end target date for a Middle East peace agreement certain to be missed, international mediators pledged support yesterday for continued Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and their envoy, Tony Blair, urged President-elect Barack Obama to make the peace effort a priority.
Meeting at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, representatives of the so-called Quartet - made up of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - were briefed by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on talks launched nearly a year ago at a conference hosted by President Bush in Annapolis.
The negotiations have made little substantial progress. Yet the Quartet "emphasized the importance of continuity of the peace process," according to a statement released after the meeting.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who joined U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana at the gathering, said the process begun at Annapolis had laid foundations for a future peace.
"I believe that the Annapolis process is now the international community's answer and the parties' answer to how we finally end the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis," Rice said.
The Annapolis meeting set a target of a peace agreement by the end of the year, but the White House acknowledged last week what leaders on both sides had been saying for months - that no deal was likely before Bush leaves office in January.
Blair, the former British prime minister and the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East, urged Obama to take up the matter as soon as he becomes president.
"The single most important thing is that the new administration in the United States grips this issue from Day One, and it can do so knowing that there is a foundation upon which we can build," Blair said after the Quartet meeting.
In a later interview with BBC television, Blair said he believed that Obama understood that "for the relationship between Islam and the West there isn't anything more important, simply nothing more important than getting this deal done."