As Washington brainstorms with outside experts on how to jump-start the stymied diplomatic process in the Middle East, the European Union announced that the Quartet will hold a meeting February 5 on the sidelines of a meeting in Munich to discuss the situation.

The Quartet – comprised of the US, EU, UN and Russia – last met to discuss the diplomatic situation in September, just prior to the break-off of direct talks after the expiration of the 10-month settlement freeze.

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The February meeting, announced by a German government spokesman Friday, will take place in the background of a major annual security conference, and will be attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The meeting will come amid a period of increasing regional volatility and instability, following the week’s turmoil in Lebanon and Tunisia.

The meeting also comes as the White House reportedly has set up a task force led by former national Security advisors Sandy Berger, who served under Bill Clinton, and Stephen Hadley, who was George Bush’s national security advisor, to offer suggestions to the current National Security Council.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, whose visits to the region have decreased even as White House aide Denis Ross has been here twice in the last month, held separate talks in Washington Thursday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzchak Molcho, and the PA’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

There was no announcement made after those meetings of when Mitchell would return to the region.

State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said of the discussions that “at the working level, we are working on the core issues. We’re trying to narrow the gaps that exist. I would expect that we’ll have similar engagements, and this is all trying to build a foundation, improve trust, and try to move the parties back to direct negotiations. This is an effort that will continue.”

Crowley, meanwhile, went on the record opposing Palestinian efforts towards bringing a resolution slamming Israeli settlement activity to the UN Security Council.

Asked whether Erekat and Mitchell discussed a draft resolution on the matter, Crowley said “We have had and continue to have conversations with the Palestinians on that question.” He also said that “it is our belief that New York is the wrong forum to address these complex issues, that the parties should work to find a way back to direct negotiations as the only way to resolve these difficult issues and the conflict once and for all.”

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