August 28, 2009 - 12:00am

The United States indicated Friday that its calls on Israel to freeze settlements were not a precondition for restarting Middle East peace talks, as the Jewish state held firm in its refusal.

President Barack Obama's administration insisted it was not changing its stance, which has caused friction with the close US ally, that Israel halt all settlements in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem.

But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the main US goal was to relaunch talks between Israel and the Palestinians, who will decide for themselves on the contours of a peace deal.

"The United States position on settlements, we've said it many times, we haven't changed it," Crowley said.

But he added: "The key here is getting to the negotiations."

"Remember what we are trying to achieve here," he said. "We are hoping to get to a formal negotiation through which we can reach a resolution between the Israelis and the Palestinians as part of our ambition to see comprehensive peace in the Middle East."

'We've set a high bar'

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged Israel's right-leaning prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has resisted the settlement demands.

The United States is waiting to see whether the Palestinians and other Arabs support holding peace talks nonetheless, the official said.

"We've set a high bar and the objective here is how close to that bar can you get," the official said.

"We have our very strong views which we have enunciated about what we think it necessary. But if you get close to that and the parties themselves say this is okay," then Washington will not complain, the official said.


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