BRUSSELS European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton extended a Middle East trip on Wednesday to hold more talks aimed at averting a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, officials said.
Ashton is in the region to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders as well as diplomats from Arab countries, part of an intense international effort to revive peace talks.
Senior U.S. envoys were in the Middle East as well in what appears to be a last-ditch push to dissuade the Palestinians from seeking to upgrade their U.N. status this month -- a step Israel strongly opposes.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on Wednesday with Ashton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is also in the region seeking to pull the two sides together, the State Department said.
"This is part of our intensive effort here to find a way forward," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Washington has expressed concern that bringing the issue of Palestinian statehood to the United Nations would damage prospects for new peace talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The U.S. officials, White House official Dennis Ross and U.S. Mideast peace envoy David Hale, met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday and were due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday, Toner said.
Ashton said Netanyahu had asked her for an additional meeting, beyond those planned, and she accepted.
"I met this morning with the Prime Minister and will stay longer than I planned, at (his) request, so that we can talk again this evening," Ashton said in a statement.
"I hope that in the coming days what we'll be able to achieve together will be something that enables the negotiations to start," she said. She gave no details of the talks.
A senior United Nations diplomat said he understood Ashton was trying to negotiate with the Palestinians a package that could include a statement by the Quartet of Middle East negotiators laying out guidelines for future peace talks, and a U.N. General Assembly resolution acceptable to the West.
The Quartet groups the EU, the United Nations, the United States and Russia.
Ashton has worked intensely in recent months to build up the EU's credentials as a Middle East power broker, but her efforts are complicated by internal divisions in Europe over the Palestinians' plans.
The 27-member EU could split into opposing camps if the Palestinians bring the issue of statehood up for a vote at the United Nations, with some states backing the efforts and others likely to oppose them.
The bloc is the largest international aid donor to the Palestinians. But European states have limited leverage in the region and face a degree of mistrust from Israel, which questions their close ties with the Palestinians.
The United Nations and International Monetary Fund meanwhile issued separate reports saying that a shortfall in donor aid, tough Israeli trade restrictions and diplomatic paralysis were jeopardizing Palestinian efforts to build a viable economy and strong institutions.
The two reports said that while Abbas' Palestinian Authority had prepared the necessary bodies to run an independent state, mounting economic and political difficulties could undercut the eventual state's long-term viability.
(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Andrew Quinn in Washington, Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Editing by Peter Graff)