(photo credit: AP [file])
Michael Williams, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process said Wednesday that member states of the UN must demand that Hizbullah provide a sign of life from kidnapped reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
Williams, who is expected to end his term soon, called for countries that have connections with the organization to do everything in their power to pressure Hizbullah to divulge the information.
According to Williams, the last meeting he had in the region was with Karnit Goldwasser, wife of captured soldier Ehud Goldwasser, Israel Radio reported.
Williams said he is convinced Israel and the Palestinians can reach agreement to revive the stalled peace process in time for a US-sponsored international peace conference in November if both sides show goodwill and political courage.
Williams pointed to "signs of hope" including the peace conference, the revival of a pan-Arab peace initiative, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's new Mideast role - and perhaps "above all" the dialogue between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
The talks between Abbas and Olmert, most recently on Tuesday, and the reform efforts of Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayad "have created growing expectations," Williams told a daylong open meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday.
"We cannot afford a new failure in the efforts to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process," he said. "There is a hope now which has been absent for almost seven years. A setback at this stage could have serious consequences."
Williams said the Abbas-Olmert meetings are expected to continue, with the next meeting expected on Sept. 10, ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"Both sides have reported substantive discussions and exchanges of ideas on permanent status issues, as well as on confidence-building steps," he said. "There also appears to be a welcome common desire to reach an agreement or understanding that could be presented to November's international meeting."
For these expectations to be met, Williams told the council, "I believe that the talks will need to shift gear, to achieve concrete agreements on permanent status issues and steps of implementation."
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian UN observer, told the council "there is at this time a significant opportunity before us to end the Israeli occupation and towards the attainment of the two-state solution."
Israel's UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman told the council that Abbas and Olmert were working together and discussing "mutual issues concerning Israel and the Palestinians living side-by-side." He said the talks were continuing despite the danger posed by extremists from Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.
After the meeting, he told reporters he was encouraged that countries across the world, from very different political backgrounds, "saw some signs of hope."
"I think with goodwill and political courage - and it will require very substantial amounts of both of those commodities - we could see real progress in the latter part of this year in a way that we haven't, I'm afraid, for the last seven years," Williams said.
"My sense from talking last week to people very close to Prime Minister Olmert and to people very close to president Abbas is that the two men have struck up an extraordinarily strong personal rapport that now has to be translated into an agreement on a text that can be discussed and presented at the November meeting in the states," Williams said.
He said "the Palestinians would like to see a more ambitious agreement, a framework agreement, which the Israelis ... seem more reluctant to go for at this stage."
"But with 10-12 weeks to play for, and with the very strong basis that they have now, I'm convinced that they can make real movement in that regard," Williams said.
He told the council that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host a meeting of the Quartet of international Mideast mediators at UN headquarters on Sept. 23 to take stock of the Palestinian-Israeli discussions and prepare for the peace conference.
Top officials from the Quartet - the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia -_ will host a dinner that night for the Arab League committee that has been promoting a pan-Arab plan for peace with Israel.
The Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers made a historic trip to Israel in late July to present the plan, saying it offers Israel "security, recognition and acceptance" by its Middle East neighbors.
A UN official said other likely participants are Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria.
On Sept. 24, Williams said the Palestinian donors group chaired by Norway, known as the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, will also meet at UN headquarters at the ministerial level. It includes the United States, the European Union, Canada, Russia and several Arab states as well as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
"We hope that this meeting will reconfirm the international community's strong support for the Palestinian Authority government's program," he said. "The meeting will also be a key stepping stone towards a donor pledging conference planned for December."
In his final briefing to the UN Security Council before returning to London to become British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Mideast envoy, Williams said Blair, the Quartet representative, would participate in both meetings.
Blair has been tasked by the Quartet to prepare the foundations for a stable, economically strong West Bank government that could lead the Palestinians into statehood, but to leave the hard political issues at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict alone.
Williams said the meetings will give Blair "the opportunity to share with international partners his agenda for the period ahead to support Palestinian institutional reform and economic rejuvenation."