WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is
expected to announce Friday that Israel and the Palestinians will resume
direct peace talks for the first time in 20 months, the New York Times
The Times, citing two unnamed officials briefed on the situation,
said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader
Mahmud Abbas, have agreed to place a one-year time limit on the talks.
US President Barack Obama is expected to invite Netanyahu and Abbas
to Washington in early September to start the negotiations, which will
address "final status" issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the
right of return for Palestinian refugees, the Times said late Thursday.
A return to direct negotiations would be the first significant
achievement for the Obama administration's effort to facilitate Middle
East peace talks.
Face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have
been on hold for nearly two years, despite US pressure on both sides.
The last round of direct talks collapsed when Israel launched a
devastating three-week offensive in Gaza in December 2008 in a bid to
halt rocket fire from the enclave ruled by the militant Hamas movement.
The US State Department sounded an optimistic note on direct talks early Thursday.
"We think we are very, very close to a decision by the parties to
enter into direct negotiations. There are details that are still being
worked out," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.
Crowley said Clinton had consulted with Jordanian Foreign Minister
Nasser Judah and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who
represents the diplomatic Quartet.
The Quartet -- composed of the United States, Russia, the United
Nations and the European Union -- could issue a statement in support of
direct peace talks that have been suspended since December 2008.
"We believe that, if we reach the point we hope to arrive at,
that... members of the Quartet will demonstrate their support for the
process; we will demonstrate our support for the process." Crowley said.
"And we will outline... specifics of where we go from here," the spokesman said.
Palestinian officials have said that any new statement would be
modeled on one issued in Moscow in March that called on Israel to halt
settlement construction and for the talks to lead to a final peace deal
in two years.
Any statement could call on Israel to extend for another 10 months
its limited freeze on West Bank settlement construction, which is to
expire in September.
But Israeli media reported this week that a forum of seven top Israeli cabinet members decided to reject any Quartet statement.
"The Quartet declaration should allow the Palestinians to descend
the tree they have climbed by refusing negotiations, but it is not
binding on Israel," several Israeli media outlets quoted an unnamed
minister as saying.
Israel says it is prepared to enter direct negotiations, but without
preconditions, but the Palestinians have demanded a halt to all Israeli
settlement activity and guidelines on the negotiation of final borders.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas have visited Washington in recent months
for talks with Obama, with the White House urging a speedy return to
The two sides have accused each other of stymying direct talks, but
both parties agreed, albeit reluctantly, to indirect "proximity" talks
that began in May, facilitated by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.