WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has abandoned attempts to persuade Israel to slow West Bank settlement activity, officials said Tuesday, dealing a blow to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and one of the president's top foreign policy initiatives.
After months of trying to broker a formula under which Israel would impose a new, temporary settlement freeze in return for U.S. promises and incentives, two American officials said the administration has concluded that course won't work.
Talks stalled in September, barely a month after they started. The Palestinians refused to return to direct negotiations until a new freeze was in place after the expiration of an earlier, 10-month Israeli slowdown in settlement expansion.
Now, said the U.S. officials, American pressure for a three-month moratorium and the U.S. incentives package, which included political, diplomatic and security assurances for Israel, are off the table. They spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The White House's bid for a Middle East peace settlement was a long shot from the start, but its apparent breakdown comes at a time when the administration is struggling on a number of fronts abroad. There is slow progress in the Afghan war, increasing friction with China and the embarrassing deluge of confidential diplomatic cables released by the website WikiLeaks.
The U.S. officials said the administration was not giving up efforts to broker a peace deal and noted that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will visit Washington next week.
The United States will be talking with both sides in the coming days, one of the officials said.
However, the administration's decision to drop support for the Palestinians' key demand could mean the end of the moribund peace process.
Obama had made Israeli-Palestinian peace a major goal of his administration, appointing seasoned peace negotiator George Mitchell as his Mideast envoy on his second day in office.
Mitchell made dozens of trips to the region to get the parties to agree to direct talks. In early September, with the expiration of the initial slowdown looming, Obama brought Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas along with the leaders of Jordan and Egypt to launch the face-to-face discussions, which failed. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials would comment on the developments in Washington before their official announcement.