Sun, Dec 12, 2010 - Page 7 News List

US scrambles to salvage Middle East peace talks

NEW APPROACH:Hillary Rodham Clinton was to speak with senior officials from both sides before making a speech about the US’ failure to get them to resume negotiations


US President Barack Obama’s administration sought a new strategy for salvaging the US-led Middle East peace talks on Friday, less than a week after dropping an effort to persuade Israel to impose a temporary freeze on some settlement activity.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton planned talks with senior officials from both sides in advance of an evening speech to a Washington think tank on the administration’s plans for the way forward. US Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley said the address would be a “broad-ranging review of all the dimensions of Middle East peace,” including the stakes for all sides and the cost of allowing the status quo to continue.

Although the administration has failed to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to direct negotiations, Crowley denied that the process had unraveled.

“We’re definitely not back at square one,” he said. “We think we’ve built a foundation for what lies ahead.”

Clinton was scheduled to meet with the Palestinian prime minister, the lead Palestinian negotiator, the Israeli defense minister, a former Israeli foreign minister and the UN special envoy for the region.

On Thursday, Clinton held lengthy talks with Israel’s chief negotiator. The administration’s special Middle East peace envoy will travel to the region next week.

The effort comes just days after the US dropped its bid to persuade Israel to renew a freeze in West Bank settlement construction, a key Palestinian demand for returning to the talks stalled since an earlier slowdown expired in late September. The change in approach followed months of grueling diplomacy, administration officials say, that led them to conclude the focus on settlements over strong Israeli objections was a distraction from dealing with core issues such as security and borders.

Emerging from the Department of State after his talks with Clinton, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat blamed the Israeli government for the breakdown in talks and said the Palestinians would continue to consult with the US, the UN, the EU and Arab League on how to proceed.

“They are alone responsible for the derailment of the peace process,” Erekat told reporters. “The Israeli government had a choice between settlements and peace and they chose settlements.”

He said the Palestinian position was unchanged and offered no predictions as to what might be next.

In her speech to the Brookings Institution — part of a conference that will also feature Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak — Clinton is expected to express disappointment at the failure of the administration’s efforts to date. However, she is expected to say that Obama and his administration have not given up and will aggressively pursue a peace deal.

US officials say their hope is to make progress on security issues and setting a final border between Israel and a future Palestinian state in separate talks with the two sides, paving the way for a resumption of direct negotiations and an ultimate peace deal.

Officials said they expect Clinton to highlight the importance of security and borders in her speech and appeal for the parties to prepare to discuss those matters in depth with US officials in the coming weeks.

US envoy George Mitchell is to leave early next week for the Middle East for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He will also visit neighboring Arab states.

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