EU's Ashton wants Quartet Mideast talks in February

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - The EU foreign policy chief called on Thursday for the Quartet of Middle East mediators to meet early next month to help Israel and the Palestinians overcome a deadlock in peace talks.

With negotiations in limbo for the past three months, the European Union’s Catherine Ashton said the EU, Russia, the United States and United Nations should schedule a high-level meeting to revive the peace process and put it back on track.

“I propose the Quartet meet as soon as possible to help find a solution to the current impasse. The Munich Security Conference in early February offers a good opportunity,” Ashton said at the end of a two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“My trip to the region so early in the year is an expression of my personal commitment and that of the European Union and its 27 member states to peace in the Middle East,” she said.

“I have urged both Israelis and Palestinians to find a satisfactory way to engage without delay in substantive negotiations on all final-status issues. There is no alternative to a negotiated solution,” she added in a statement.

Washington succeeded in relaunching direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians in early September, only to see the negotiation grind to a halt three weeks later when Israel’s partial moratorium on building in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank expired.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to return to talks until Israel freezes construction on land it captured in a 1967 war. Senior U.S. envoys were due in the region at the weekend in the latest bid to break the impasse.

Ashton visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Orthodox Christians, Copts and the Ethiopian Church were about to celebrate their Christmas.

Abbas was also in Bethlehem to attend midnight mass.

Reporting by Douglas Hamilton, editing by Mark Heinrich