US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about issues blocking direct peace talks with the Palestinians as the Obama administration boosted pressure for talks to begin as soon as possible, the State Department said on Friday.
Clinton telephoned Netanyahu on Thursday evening, and also discussed the issue with the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in message on Twitter.
"Secretary Clinton continued the US push for peace in the Middle East last evening with calls to regional leaders," Crowley said, adding that her talks with Netanyahu focused on "issues to be resolved for direct negotiations to begin." The Prime Minister's Office confirmed that the phone conversation took place.
Clinton's telephone calls followed a trip to the region by US Mideast negotiator George Mitchell this week in which he sought to break down the final barriers to direct peace negotiations, which US President Barack Obama hopes to see launched in coming weeks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas indicated on Monday he could go to direct talks, provided they were based on a March 19 statement by the "Quartet" of Mideast peace mediators - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
But Israeli newspapers said Netanyahu told Mitchell on Wednesday he wanted talks to start immediately without any such "precondition" - dampening hopes for an imminent breakthrough.
"We believe they are committed. It is just a matter of working through a few details. They are important, but we are very, very close," one senior US administration official said, speaking on condition he was not named.
US officials have said they are working with other Quartet representatives on a possible statement, which EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said, in a letter seen by Reuters, would be issued early next week if both parties agree to move forward to direct talks.
Netanyahu's 'tempting' offer
Friday morning, London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper reported that Netanyahu has prepared a "tempting" plan to be presented to the Palestinians in the direct negotiations, as part of which Israel will offer to withdraw from up to 90% of the West Bank, excluding east Jerusalem.
The Prime Minister's Office denied the report, calling it "unfounded."
The newspaper quotes "knowledgeable sources" in Ramallah as saying that the prime minister's plan will be in the form of a new interim agreement, similar to the 1993 Oslo Accords.
According to the sources, Netanyahu informed the Western delegates he met with recently that the current situation was not right for reaching a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and that he planned to present a proposal for a new interim agreement, which would be "extensive and tempting" to the Palestinians.
Roni Sofer contributed to this report
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