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Israel snubs Mideast mediators, officials say

JERUSALEM -- Israel snubbed a delegation of Mideast mediators that had come to discuss its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, officials said yesterday, further undermining efforts to promote an internationally backed peace plan for the region.

The representatives of the so-called Quartet -- comprising the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia -- are in the region to promote the Gaza withdrawal.

The Quartet wants the withdrawal to be part of the "road map," its broader peace plan that envisions an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

Israeli officials, however, decided not to meet with the diplomats during a stop in Jerusalem on Tuesday -- the latest sign that the Jewish state is attempting to exclude Europeans from Mideast peacemaking ahead of its planned Gaza withdrawal.

"We do not work with the Europeans on security issues. We don't want to work with the Europeans on security issues," said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Asaf Shariv.

"We work with the Americans on these issues. There are a lot of other issues, like economic, that we would be happy to work on with the Europeans," Shariv said.

Shariv denied that Israel had refused to meet the Quartet. He said Israel wants to talk to a White House delegation arriving later this week before discussing the withdrawal plan with others.

Israel has often accused Europe of being biased toward the Palestinians, and preferred to deal directly with the United States.

The government has progressively distanced itself from the road map, which calls for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, since it signed on to the plan a year ago.

Sharon has refused to talk with the Palestinians as he prepares the Gaza pullout. Instead, he has asked Egypt, which borders Gaza, to help train Palestinian security forces and to ensure calm.

A diplomatic source expressed surprise at the Israeli snub. He said the EU has held a series of "very constructive" meetings with Israel on the Gaza plan.

"The message from the Israelis is that European contributions that help to make Gaza withdrawal a success will be very welcome," the source said, on condition of anonymity.

The Quartet envoys met yesterday with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Later, Qureia met with David Satterfield, the American representative at the talks.

"If it is true that Israeli officials would not meet with the Quartet, it means that Israel is turning its back to the entire world," Qureia said.

At the meetings, Queria criticized Israeli settlements, the construction of a West Bank separation barrier, and the targeted killings of Palestinian militants, Palestinian officials said.

The officials said Satterfield emphasized that the United States continues to support President Bush's vision of a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel, as set out in the road map plan.

While US officials say they are committed to the plan, Washington has sent mixed signals over its implementation.

In new fighting yesterday, Israeli troops shot and killed an armed Palestinian man in a refugee camp on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus. Palestinians said the man belonged to the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a Palestinian militant group.

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