WASHINGTON — Amid uncertainty over whether Israel will act to prevent the Palestinians from walking out of nascent U.S.-mediated peace talks, the Obama administration is seeking Arab support for keeping the negotiations alive.
As Arab leaders and foreign ministers prepare to meet in Libya beginning Friday, U.S. officials have spent days trying to persuade them not to withdraw their earlier backing for the talks. Arab support is seen as key for the Palestinians to stay at the table, especially if Israel does not renew a partial freeze on West Bank settlements.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to walk out of the negotiations if the freeze is not extended. Despite frantic American efforts, including the offer of a broad package of security and political incentives, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet been convinced to do that.
U.S. officials hold out hope that Netanyahu will soon agree, perhaps this weekend, to a one-time, limited extension of the 10-month slowdown on West Bank settlement construction.
But their immediate focus is on the Arab League, whose backing would give Abbas political cover to stay in the talks without one.
"We want to see a positive signal come out tomorrow ... about keeping negotiations on track," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday. "That is our goal, fundamentally. We want to see negotiations continue."
To that end, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and special Mideast envoy George Mitchell have been making calls to Arab leaders since the beginning of the week, he said.
In a call to Abbas on Thursday, Clinton and the Palestinian leader "discussed the status of negotiations and steps going forward," the State Department said.
Mitchell and members of his team spoke to officials from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Kuwait, the department said.
Arab League backing is not guaranteed and several key members — including Egypt and Jordan, the only two with peace deals with Israel — have said they would support a Palestinians refusal to negotiate with Israel as long as it continues to build West Bank settlements. Still, Egypt and Jordan have called for more efforts to salvage the talks.
Several U.S. officials said they were optimistic that the Arab League meetings would not end with a call for the Palestinians to abandon the talks. These officials said they expected rancor from some Arab states, notably Syria, but that other more moderate nations would prevail.
They said they believed Arab leaders would adopt an ambiguous statement that leaves room for maximum flexibility by the Palestinians to stay at the table and sends a message to Israel that the Arab world is serious about peace. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the diplomacy.
Meanwhile, administration officials awaited a decision from Netanyahu on whether to accept the incentives in exchange for a 60-day extension of the settlement slowdown.
The Palestinians said Thursday they have accepted a U.S. proposal calling on Israel for the two-month extension. While Netanyahu has been sounding out colleagues on the idea, his own position is not yet clear.
In Washington, Israeli Embassy spokesman Jonathan Peled said at day's end: "No decision has been taken on settlement activity." He said the talks should continue without preconditions.
Current and former U.S. officials say the administration has floated a number of incentives to Netanyahu aimed at convincing him to extend the freeze. Those include continued U.S. support at the U.N., recognition of Israel's security needs in the West Bank, enhanced military aid and a promise to build regional consensus about the threat posed by Iran.
But one former official with knowledge of the secretive American proposals now before Netanyahu said they are vague, particularly about the composition of a security force in the Jordan Valley after a peace deal is signed.
The former official said the U.S. has proposed to "recognize Israel's security concerns and needs in the Jordan Valley as they exist today." The official said the proposal stops well short of endorsing an Israeli Army presence there, something that Israel has sought but which the Palestinians adamantly oppose.
The language could be used, however, to signal that the United States would not object to international peacekeepers in the Jordan Valley, possibly with Israeli participation.
On Thursday, Israel signed a contract to buy American-made F-35 stealth fighter jets that will significantly strengthen Israel's military. The planes will able to reach Iran undetected by radar. Israel considers Iran a strategic threat, citing its calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, its suspect nuclear program and missiles.
The United States had agreed during President George W. Bush's administration to upgrade its strategic cooperation with Israel and supply it with $30 billion in advanced weaponry and equipment.