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US push for Middle East peace talks foundering

By Matthew Lee

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, July 9 2011 9:37 p.m. MDT

Unidentified demonstrators cut through a small section of Israel's separation barrier fence, at a pro-Palestinian protest attended by Israeli, Palestinian and foreign demonstrators, near the West Bank city of Ramallah Saturday, July 9, 2011.

Majdi Mohammed, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's furious efforts to relaunch stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks this summer are going nowhere, and a looming U.N. confrontation could further set back prospects for a negotiated settlement any time soon.

Despite attempts to get the parties back to the table based on parameters that President Barack Obama outlined in a May speech, U.S. and other officials say neither side appears willing to commit to new discussions.

Senior officials from the international group of Mideast peacemakers — the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia — planned to meet Monday in Washington. The goal is to revive the process by increasing pressure on the two sides to return to talks.

The mediators "will come together and will compare notes about where we are and plot a course forward," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday.

Yet repeated visits to Israel and the West Bank last month by U.S. envoys have produced no tangible results. That's been the case, too, in recent talks in Washington between U.S. officials and their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts.

This past week, the new U.S. special Mideast peace envoy, David Hale, and White House adviser Dennis Ross pressed the chief Palestinian peace negotiator on one of the biggest points of contention, a Palestinian plan to win U.N. recognition as an independent state.

Israel and the U.S. support an eventually independent Palestine but oppose the attempt to establish one without negotiation with the Jewish state.

In a sign of the intractability of the decades-long deadlock, negotiator Saeb Erekat said immediately after Wednesday's meeting that the Palestinians were more determined than ever to win recognition when the U.N. General Assembly meets in September. Erekat said those opposing the Palestinians need to "rethink their position."

The measure probably will pass, providing the Palestinians with increased diplomatic power, even if independence still will need the council's approval. The U.S. would surely veto any such resolution.

One U.S. official privately described the overall atmosphere surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as gloomy. A second termed it depressing. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential meetings.

The deadlock had split the United States and its allies about how to restart the talks. Until last week, the U.S. had resisted European calls for the meeting Monday, believing there was nothing new to discuss, officials said.

The U.S. concluded that it wasn't worth continuing to fight the meeting despite the poor prospects for success, officials said.

Little of substance is expected.

The principals are Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. They plan to a working dinner and then issue a written statement.

The U.S. and the Europeans want direct Israeli-Palestinian talks to resume before the Palestinians bring their independence case to the United Nations.

"We are facing concerns about September, proposals to do things in September that we think are not only not helpful but that could be detrimental to our ability to get parties back to the table," Nuland said.

She said it makes sense to "talk about the diplomacy that all of us have been having with the parties and see what we can do to work together to try to push them back to the table."

The Palestinians have sent officials to lobby governments around the world for support; Israel is engaged in a determined counter-effort.

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