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World diplomats urge resumption of Mideast talks

world Updated: Mar 20, 2010 08:05 IST

AP
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US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has suggested that the United States and Israel have found a way around the worst disagreement the two allies have faced in years while international diplomats set goals for new US-backed peace talks aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state. The so-called Quartet group of Mideast negotiators met in the Russian capital Friday to set the stage for peace talks in which the United States would be a go-between.

Those indirect talks would be the first under the Democratic Obama administration and the hawkish Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At a news conference after the meeting, Clinton spoke approvingly of indications Netanyahu is ready to address US concerns about new Jewish housing that complicates peace efforts.

"What I heard from the prime minister in response to the requests we made was useful and productive," she said, "and we are continuing our discussions with him and his government." That was a far cry from Clinton's earlier condemnation of the housing plan in east Jerusalem as an insult, delivered for maximum effect during a visit to Jerusalem by Vice President Joe Biden. Clinton had a curt conversation with Netanyahu a week ago in which she laid out US expectations from here, including a rollback to the housing plan, a gesture of good faith to the Palestinians and an express statement that all issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians, including the fate of divided Jerusalem, remain part of the negotiations.

Underscoring US optimism that the episode is past, Clinton dispatched US Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell to visit Israel and the West Bank to try to get the talks going. Mitchell attended Friday's talks.

Clinton said she expects to see Netanyahu in Washington next week. Both are to address the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and they plan a separate meeting. It is not clear whether Netanyahu will see other US leaders. President Barack Obama had planned to be out of town during Netanyahu's visit but he canceled his trip so that he could remain in Washington for what could be a final vote on his health care overhaul.

"We are all committed to the launching of proximity talks between the Israelis and Palestinians," Clinton told reporters in Moscow, referring to the negotiations in which the US would have a go-between role.

A spokesman for Netanyahu had no comment.

The Quartet group called on Israel and the Palestinians to return to peace negotiations with the goal of creating an independent Palestinian state within two years. They reiterated condemnation of Israel's latest move to add Jewish housing in disputed east Jerusalem but did not escalate criticism of the Jewish state. Palestinians want the traditionally Arab east Jerusalem as the capital for their future state.

The Quartet group of peacemakers _ the US, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union _ is meant to represent an international consensus on the importance of pressing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a commitment to establishing a Palestinian state as part of that process.

Of the four members, the United States customarily has been the least inclined to criticize Israel.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a joint news conference that the Israelis and Palestinians should move first to indirect talks, followed by face-to-face negotiations. The idea is that each side would convey messages through a US envoy, who would shuttle between sides. Those indirect talks were to have started last week but were stalled by reaction to Israel's announcement of new housing in east Jerusalem.

Before the housing spat, Netanyahu had welcomed the prospect of negotiations but staked out tougher positions than his predecessor. For instance, he refused to consider a partition of Jerusalem and insisted on keeping key areas of the West Bank that Palestinians say belong to them.

Netanyahu has also resisted a complete settlement construction freeze, agreeing only to curb construction in the West Bank for 10 months, but not in east Jerusalem.