WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday she expected Israel and the Palestinians to begin indirect peace talks next week, breaking months of deadlock over a key U.S. foreign policy goal.
“We will be starting with proximity talks next week,” Clinton told reporters, saying U.S. special Envoy George Mitchell would return to the Middle East next week to get the process under way.
Clinton said the United States expected an Arab foreign ministers meeting on Saturday to endorse the new talks, which would give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas political cover to resume indirect negotiations that he pulled out of in March after Israel announced new Jewish settlement construction.
“Ultimately we want to see the parties in direct negotiations and working out all the difficult issues,” Clinton said during a meeting with visiting Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Sabah.
“They’ve been close a few times before,” Clinton said. “So we are looking to see the resumption of those discussions.”
Israeli and Palestinian officials declined comment. One Abbas aide, Saeb Erekat, said his side would await the results of the Arab foreign ministers meeting on Saturday as well as of a Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee next week.
Kuwait’s Al-Sabah said he was confident Arab states would back the initiative to get talks back on track. “We support fully the position that the United States has taken,” he said.
Clinton’s statement signaled that weeks of intense U.S. diplomacy were bearing fruit and both sides were again ready to relaunch the Mideast peace process through indirect “proximity” talks — in which U.S. mediators shuttle between negotiators. “We’ve worked intensively in this. We’ve asked both sides to take actions,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “I think there’s an understanding that the proximity talks are valuable. I think there’s a commitment to engage seriously in them and to begin to address the substantive issues at the heart of the search for peace,” he said.
Mitchell, who held three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders last week, was expected to travel again in coming days and would have meetings in the region toward the end of next week, Crowley said.
The Obama administration has been pushing hard for the two sides to resume negotiations stalled since the three-week Gaza war that began in December 2008, calling it a direct security concern to the United States.
Hopes that indirect talks would start in March were dashed when Israeli officials announced plans to build 1,600 new homes for Jewish settlers, ignoring U.S. and Palestinian objections.
Abbas had long insisted Israel freeze Jewish settlement building before the talks resume, and had rejected a temporary hiatus in construction ordered by Netanyahu last year as insufficient. But Palestinian sources have said that Mitchell offered them an unwritten commitment to assign blame publicly to any party that takes actions which compromise the negotiations in exchange for coming back to the table.
Clinton declined to discuss any specific U.S. offers to the Palestinians, but said that both sides recognized the importance the Obama administration placed on reaching a peace deal which eventually delivers independent states for both Israel and the Palestinians.
“We’ve been very clear in our efforts that the resumption of talks is absolutely essential for the progress we seek toward a two state solution,” she said.