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."
"A number of minor details need to be clarified with Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that will open the way for direct talks," the official said at the time.
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.
Abbas is demanding that the negotiations have a clear framework for the ideas that will be put in place; he also wants a commitment by Israel to cease settlement construction during the direct talks.
The Palestinian leader told Mitchell that the Quartet would reiterate its declaration from March that included a call for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an end to the occupation that began in 1967.
There would be the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and an end to settlement construction. In addition, residents of Jerusalem would not be expelled from their homes and the two sides would not take any unilateral steps.
Palestinian sources said Mitchell did not reject the suggestions.
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. Over the weekend international leaders pressured Abbas to announce this week the resumption of direct negotiations.
Meanwhile, a senior Fatah official, Azam al-Ahmed, who is accompanying Abbas on a visit to Qatar, said on Saturday that the Palestinian Authority would announce on Sunday or Monday its position on resuming direct talks with Israel.
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