WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will continue to try to negotiate the outlines of an eventual peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians through indirect talks, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday evening, implicitly acknowledging that the direct talks launched with fanfare just three months ago had failed.
The new plan essentially abandons several elements of the administration's approach since it took office. Clinton made clear the United States still disapproves of Jewish settlement expansion in Palestinian areas, but will no longer demand a freeze. The push for immediate direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders — a central focus for months — is also largely gone.
Instead, according to Clinton's remarks prepared for delivery before a dinner sponsored by the Saban Forum, the administration will press the parties to agree on the elements of a peace deal, but without at first talking to each other.
"We will work to narrow the gaps, asking tough questions and expecting substantive answers," Clinton said to a crowd that included many veterans of past failed diplomatic efforts, including Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Clinton's lengthy speech repeated much familiar rhetoric, but did offer some clues to the administration's emerging approach.
The language seemed designed to rebut Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that his country should be able to maintain a residual presence in some Palestinian areas, such as the Jordan Valley.
But on other issues, such as whether Palestinian refugees have any right to return to their homes in Israel, Clinton was extremely vague. She said it was "a difficult and emotional issue, but there must be a just and permanent solution that meets the needs of both sides."
Israeli leaders have said no Palestinians should be able to return — they would offer possibly some compensation — while Palestinian officials have always held out the dream of eventual return.