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14 December - Substantive third-party mediation between Israel and the Palestinians is crucial now that direct talks have been suspended after Israel's failure to freeze settlements in occupied territory, a senior United Nations official said today, citing United States-led indirect negotiations.

“The need to shift strategy is evident,” UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry told the Security Council in a regular monthly briefing on the Middle East crisis. “We understand that the US will now engage both sides in indirect talks on all final status issues, and the Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] expects the parties to engage seriously.

“We also note that the United States intends to be a proactive participant offering ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate. We believe it is clear that a substantive third party role in mediation is now required. The goal must be a two-State solution based on an end to the 1967 occupation and a resolution of all core issues.”

Israel's refusal in late September to extend a 10-month freeze on settlement activity in the Palestinian territory occupied in the 1967 six-day war prompted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw from direct talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which had only resumed a few weeks earlier after a two-year hiatus.

The US, which championed the resumed talks, has now reverted to indirect shuttle diplomacy between the two sides.

“We wish to make clear that the United Nations will continue to emphasize that settlement activity is contrary to international law the Road Map and the position of the Quartet,” Mr. Serry said, referring to the internationally endorsed plan for two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, and the diplomatic grouping – comprising the UN, European Union, Russia and US – championing it.

“We reiterate the united position of the international community that Israel should meet its obligations to freeze all settlement activity and dismantle outposts erected since March 2001.”

Stressing the urgent need to enhance the statebuilding efforts of the Palestinian Authority (PA), he said it was now “timely and essential” that Israel implement steps it has been considering to ease restrictions on movement and access, reduce incursions and release prisoners.

“Israel needs to roll back measures of occupation as the Palestinian Authority rolls out the basis for statehood,” he added, noting that the PA had made steady progress in implementing its reform programme, maintaining financial discipline and upholding security in areas it controls.

Highlighting the need to avoid provocations, Mr. Serry voiced concern at Israel's demolition of Palestinian-owned structures in East Jerusalem and the “regrettable” study under the auspices of the PA Information Ministry, since removed from its website, denying the significance of the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem to Jews, for whom it is a remnant of the 2,000-year-old second temple.

“I stress the need for figures of political and religious authority on both sides to refrain from denial or denigration of the other's heritage, rights and dignity,” he said.

On Gaza, while voicing concern at recent volatility and closure measures, he cited positive developments such as Israel's decision to allow exports out and approval for UN agencies to complete construction projects worth $110 million in the Strip, which was devastated by the offensive that Israel said it launched two years ago to end rocket fire against it.

“This is a positive step but further progress is critical… It is essential that calm be maintained,” he added, noting that militant groups fired five rockets and 20 mortars into Israel over the past month while Israeli launched four air strikes and 12 incursions.

“I cannot over-emphasize the importance of the period we are now entering,” he concluded. “It is vital that both parties are now fully forthcoming on substance in talks with the United States… We must focus with urgency on the essential elements of a negotiated two-State end-game, for the benefit of both people. We urge both leaders to do so, and we also believe that an active third-party role on substance is essential if this is to be done.”