WASHINGTON: The Obama administration said Thursday it is near to securing an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct peace talks. Some US 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. An announcement could come as early as Friday or Saturday, said administration officials familiar with the matter. They 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 US, the UN, the European Union and Russia.
Officials said tentative plans call for the Quartet and the US to release separate statements saying the stalled talks will resume early next month in either the US or Egypt. The US statement, expected to be issued in Clinton’s name, and the Quartet statement would serve as invitations for the talks, they said.
The Israelis and Palestinians would then accept, the officials said.
Crowley declined comment on the specific arrangements but suggested multiple statements were in the works.
"As part of the Quartet we are prepared to demonstrate our support for the parties as they move towards this decision," he said. "But we, the United States, have always played a special role within this effort, and we will be prepared to assist the parties going forward in moving towards a successful negotiation. So we can do both."
The Palestinians had been balking at direct talks until the Quartet reaffirmed a March statement calling for a peace deal based on the pre-1967 Mideast war borders, and for talks to completed within two years.
But Israel rejected that, saying it amounted to placing conditions on the negotiations. Israel had been demanding a separate invitation from the US
Details of the timing and location of talks remained unclear on Thursday. The US officials said they were still shooting for around Sept. 1 in either Washington, Cairo or the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheik.
Timing is critical because religious holidays, the upcoming annual session of the U.N. General Assembly in the third week of September and the Sept. 26 expiration of a temporary 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.
Israeli and Palestinian officials refused to comment. They said they would react after an official announcement is made, and added that they did not have advance information about the content.
The Obama administration has been pushing for a speedy resumption of face-to-face negotiations that broke down in December 2008. US special Mideast envoy George Mitchell has been shuttling between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for months in a bid to get them to agree.
Abbas is wary of entering open-ended talks with Netanyahu, who has retreated from some concessions offered by his predecessors. Abbas wants Israel to accept the principle of Palestinian statehood in the lands Israel occupied in the 1967 war with minor modifications, and wants all Jewish settlement activity halted during the talks.