WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about issues blocking direct peace talks with the Palestinians as the Obama administration boosted pressure for talks to begin, the State Department said on Friday.
Clinton telephoned Netanyahu on Thursday evening, and also discussed the issue with the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
“We continued to discuss with the parties the basis for the launch of direct negotiations,” he said.
Clinton’s calls followed a trip to the region by U.S. Mideast negotiator George Mitchell this week in which he sought to overcome final barriers to direct negotiations, which U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to see launched in coming weeks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas indicated on Monday he could go to direct talks, provided they were based on a March 19 statement by the “Quartet” of Mideast peace mediators — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
But Israeli newspapers said Netanyahu told Mitchell on Wednesday he wanted talks to start immediately without any such “precondition” — dimming hopes for an imminent breakthrough.
“We believe they are committed. It is just a matter of working through a few details. They are important, but we are very, very close,” one senior U.S. administration official said, speaking on condition he was not named.
U.S. officials have said they are working with other Quartet representatives on a possible statement, which EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said, in a letter seen by Reuters, would be issued early next week if both parties agree to move forward to direct talks.
The Quartet says Israel should halt settlement building in the West Bank and reach a full peace agreement with the Palestinians within 24 months, creating a state on the basis of borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war.
Indirect peace negotiations mediated by Mitchell have made little discernible progress.
Obama wants the peace process to return to the level it broke off at nearly two years ago, when Israel went to war in the winter of 2008-09 to stop rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip by Hamas militants.
The stepped-up diplomacy comes as a partial 10-month moratorium on Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank, ordered by Netanyahu last November, is due to end on September 26 — raising a potential roadblock to further dialogue.
Abbas refuses to engage in direct talks unless Netanyahu agrees to a clear agenda. Without one, say the Palestinians, Netanyahu may propose terms for a peace treaty that are completely unacceptable, and leave Abbas looking like a rejectionist when he turns them down.
Abbas has credibility problems of his own, having lost control of the Gaza Strip — an important part of the Palestinian polity — to Hamas Islamists who refuse permanent accommodation with the Jewish state.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Eric Beech and Alan Elsner