US hopes for Mideast peace traction

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By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is accelerating diplomatic efforts to get Israel and the Palestinians back to peace talks although there is little evidence the two sides are ready to resume direct negotiations.

With most Mideast experts focused on the crisis in Syria and political upheaval in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has stepped up contacts with Israeli and Palestinian officials over the past week to persuade them to return to the table, beginning with a high-level meeting between Israeli Deputy Premier Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Clinton met on Wednesday with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mofaz, a center-left politician who has said peace with the Palestinians should be an Israeli priority. Last week, Clinton met Israel's lead negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, and spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas.

U.S. officials say the goal is to improve the atmosphere for direct talks that broke down three years ago and have yet to be resuscitated despite the administration's multiple attempts. Recent developments, including announcements of new Israeli settlement construction and attacks from Gaza into Israel, have done nothing to improve the prospects for talks.

"We are working hard at keeping these parties working and talking, and trying to keep them committed to this process," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. "The process is still very much alive. I don't dispute the fact that we've had some bad incidents on the ground this week ... but that is further to why these parties need to stay engaged."

Erekat, speaking to reporters after meeting with Clinton, said the Palestinians want to restart the negotiations but repeated the longstanding Palestinian demand that they can't do so until and unless Israel stops settlement activity.

"We want to resume negotiations," he said. "We are not against negotiations."

"The Israeli prime minister has a choice to make: settlements or peace," Erekat said. "Because the question is: If you want two states, why are you raising settlements on the land that is supposed to be Palestine?"

The Palestinians view settlement construction as a sign of bad faith and say there is no point in talking as long as Israel builds homes for its citizens on occupied lands that they claim for part of their eventual state. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Erekat said Abbas is studying a proposal to meet with Mofaz, the leader of what had been Israel's main opposition party until the hawkish Netanyahu brought it into government last month. Mofaz told a Washington think tank on Tuesday that he believes a peace agreement with the Palestinians should be Israel's most important bilateral goal.

Nuland would not comment on whether the administration was trying to broker such a meeting but said the U.S. is "looking for as much direct engagement between Israelis and Palestinians as we can have."

"Any combination of Israelis and Palestinians getting together and working on their issues would be a step in the right direction," she said.

Quiet informal meetings between Erekat and Molcho have been going on for weeks since the end of formal but technical talks mediated by Jordan earlier this year. But officials on both sides said the agenda has been modest and stressed there was no breakthrough in sight.

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