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US, EU vow to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as Mideast mediators meet amid stalemate
WASHINGTON (AP) ' The United States and European Union vowed on Monday to press ahead with efforts to re-launch the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The prospects for a breakthrough, however, were slim as hopes dimmed for averting a confrontation over whether the United Nations should recognize Palestine as an independent country. That is likely to make the decades-old deadlock even more intractable.
As they prepared to attend a meeting of the international diplomatic "quartet" of Mideast peacemakers, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said they both remained committed to getting the two sides back to the table. They said negotiations are the only way to resolve the conflict and Clinton noted that negotiations were what led to the creation of the world's newest state, South Sudan, this weekend.
"Sudan and South Sudan negotiated a peace agreement that led to independence," she told reporters at a joint news conference with Ashton. "That is what we're asking the Palestinians and the Israelis to do."
"What we strongly advocate is a return to negotiations, because a resolution, a statement, an assertion is not an agreement," she said. "And the path to two states living side by side in peace and security lies through direct negotiation. And the sooner the parties get back to that, the sooner there can be the result that many of us have worked for a long time."
Clinton and Ashton and their quartet partners ' U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ' were to meet later Monday over a working dinner to assess the situation and plot a way forward to restart the negotiations.
"We meet tonight against a backdrop of wanting to try and see progress between the Palestinians and the Israelis in terms of talks," Ashton said.
The goals for the dinner were modest as neither Israel nor the Palestinians have shown any sign they are ready to resume direct talks after nine months of inaction. Further complicating things, the meeting was being held as the Palestinians continue to lobby U.N. General Assembly for recognition when it meets in September.
The new U.S. special Mideast peace envoy, David Hale, and White House adviser Dennis Ross have been unable to persuade the chief Palestinian peace negotiator to back off that contentious effort. Israel and the U.S. support an eventually independent Palestine but oppose the attempt to establish one without negotiation with the Jewish state.
The measure probably will pass, providing the Palestinians with increased diplomatic power, even though independence still will need the U.N. Security Council's approval. The U.S. would surely veto any such resolution.
Despite furious U.S. efforts, American and other officials say neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians appear willing to commit to new discussions based on parameters that President Barack Obama outlined in a May speech: two states based on the territorial boundaries that existed before the 1967 Mideast war, with some territory swaps to account for population shifts and security concerns.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential meetings, American officials offered negative assessment of the atmosphere surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. They described it as gloomy and depressing, with one likening the recurrent problems and lack of solutions to a "Groundhog Day" scenario, referring to the movie in which the same day is repeated over and over.
And until last week, the United States wasn't even sure it made sense to meet with the other mediators, believing there was nothing new to discuss. Eventually the administration relented to European calls to get together, but little of substance is expected.
Speaking on the Voice of Palestine radio station, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday the Palestinians were hoping for a strong statement from the quartet.
"The quartet needs not only to state that the negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders but Israeli also needs to endorse that in order for us to resume the peace talks," he said. He said that given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to these terms, "we demand the quartet hold Israel responsible for the collapse of the peace process."
Amid scarce signs of a breakthrough, Israelis and Palestinians have been entrenched in an international battle for and against the recognition effort. The Palestinians have sent officials to lobby governments around the world for support; Israeli officials from Netanyahu on down have engaged in a determined counter-effort.
The Palestinians might be persuaded to withdraw the draft at the last minute. But with the peace process essentially frozen for the past two years, Washington has struggled to offer an alternative path and hasn't even been able to get Israel to stop settlement building in areas the Palestinians hope to include in their state.
The Israelis are still fuming over Obama's May 19 speech. By endorsing language on territory that had long been a Palestinian goal as a basis for the talks, Obama upset Israel, which has maintained that all boundaries should be subject to negotiation.
Netanyahu is looking for a concession from the Palestinians in return. Diplomats say he hopes to secure an explicit statement that the Palestinians will recognize Israel as a Jewish state before entering talks.
Complicating matters is a unity deal between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction, which controls the West Bank, and the militant Hamas movement in power in Gaza.
Netanyahu has rejected any talks with a Palestinian government including Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. brand a terrorist organization. Abbas has shown an apparent willingness to delay the formation of a unity government with Hamas, but once it happens it will likely jeopardize the process.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.