Thursday, August 19, 2010

U.S.: Israel, Palestinians 'very close' to direct Mideast peace talks

The Obama administration said Thursday it is near to securing an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct peace talks, while some U.S. officials said an announcement could be imminent.

The State Department said an agreement was "very, very" close but that details were still being worked out. Speaking privately administration officials familiar with the matter said an announcement could come as early as Friday or Saturday. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the ongoing diplomacy.

"We think we are very, very close to a decision by the parties to enter into direct negotiations," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.

"We think we're well positioned to get there."

To that end, he said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had called Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad late Wednesday and spoken Thursday with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special representative of the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers - the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia.

Officials said tentative plans call for Israel, the Palestinians, the Quartet and the U.S. to release separate but near simultaneous statements saying the stalled talks will resume early next month in either the U.S. or Egypt. The U.S. statement is expected to be issued in Clinton's name.

Crowley declined to comment on the arrangements but said that if "we reach the point we hope to arrive at ... we will demonstrate our support for the process and we will outline specifics of where we go from here."

Under a scenario now being finalized, the officials said Israel, the Palestinians, the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers and the United States would release separate but near simultaneous statements saying the stalled talks will resume early next month in either the U.S. or Egypt.

The State Department comment came after last week Haaretz quoted a senior U.S. official saying Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was about to announce the start of direct peace negotiations with Israel in "a matter of days."

Contrary to the optimism in Washington, however, Israeli officials were trying to show toughness regarding preconditions, with one official saying that "Israel is not willing to agree to any preconditions from the back door via a Quartet announcement that will serve as a basis for the negotiations."

"As far as we know, the negotiations may begin in two days, but also in two weeks," the Israeli official added.

Speaking with Haaretz last week, the senior U.S. official said it was still unclear whether President Barack Obama would take part in the inauguration or whether the parties would be invited to Washington for a ceremony.

According to the Israeli official, the ceremony would be held in Egypt under the auspices of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; the United States would be represented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.