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U.S. officials: Mideast talks may start soon

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Thursday it is close to securing an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct peace talks.

The State Department said an agreement was "very, very close" but that details were still being worked out.

The Associated Press, citing administration officials familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the ongoing diplomacy, reported an announcement could come as early as today or Saturday.

"We think we are very, very close to a decision by the parties to enter into direct negotiations," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.

To that end, he said, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had called Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad late Wednesday and spoken Thursday with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special representative of the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Officials said tentative plans call for the Quartet and the United States to release separate statements saying the stalled talks will resume early next month in either the United States or Egypt. The U.S. statement, expected to be issued in Clinton's name, and the Quartet statement would serve as invitations for the talks.

The Israelis and the Palestinians would then accept.

Crowley declined to comment on the specific arrangements but suggested multiple statements were in the works.

The Palestinians had been balking at direct talks until the Quartet reaffirmed a March statement calling for a peace deal based on the pre-1967 Mideast war borders and for talks to be completed within two years.

But Israel rejected that, saying it amounted to placing conditions on the negotiations.

Details of the timing and the location of the talks were unclear Thursday. U.S. officials said they were still shooting for around Sept. 1 in Washington, Cairo or Sharm-el-Sheik, a Red Sea resort.

Timing is critical because of religious holidays, the upcoming annual session of the U.N. General Assembly in the third week of September and the Sept. 26 expiration of a temporary 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

Israeli and Palestinian officials refused to comment.

U.S. officials: Mideast talks may start soon 08/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 20, 2010 12:22am]

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