EU seeks to bolster Middle East peace Quartet via Arab involvement

By Luke Baker and Adrian Croft JERUSALEM/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - High-level discussions are under way to more closely involve Arab states in the work of the Middle East Quartet and reinvigorate the four-member group that has been seeking to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2002. Rather than formally expanding the Quartet's membership, the idea is to have more frequent top-level meetings with at least Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to ensure the region is better engaged at a time of tumultuous change, according to senior diplomats based in the Middle East and Europe. Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, is expected to appoint a special envoy to the Middle East in the coming days. Officials said a first meeting of the Quartet - comprising the United States, United Nations, the EU and Russia - along with Arab countries and perhaps the Arab League could take place in the coming weeks. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, envisaging a Palestinian state in territory Israel captured in a 1967 war, collapsed in April last year after nine months of largely fruitless discussions sponsored by the United States. "The important thing is that there will be an outreach to those countries," said a European diplomat briefed on the proposals. "There is an understanding that peace between Israelis and Palestinians must be embedded in a broader regional concept and for that you need neighboring Arab countries. "It's very difficult to say at the moment what format this will take because there are too many unknown factors." No concrete plan is expected until after Israel's March 17 election, but U.S. and U.N. diplomats have made clear that they are open to the idea. It is not clear where Russia, long an outlier in the Quartet, stands. While Israel has not given the Quartet prominence in the past, preferring to have close ally Washington lead negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken of a need for a common approach with states in the region, especially given a rising threat from Islamic State insurgents. Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator in the region, said he would welcome enlargement of the Quartet, which he described as "leaderless". "When the Quartet was having (its last) meeting on a high level, it was agreed that in any renewed Quartet activities to support the peace process, countries like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others need to be more closely associated," Serry told Reuters. As well as those three states, officials have mentioned possible involvement of the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, two wealthy Gulf states that are now significant regional players. Former British prime minister Tony Blair has served as the Quartet's chief representative since 2007 and recent talk of him stepping down has been denied by officials close to him. They say he is committed to the role and has no plans to leave. (Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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