Jay Solomon
The Wall Street Journal (Analysis)
January 8, 2010 - 1:00am

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is taking new steps to restart Arab-Israeli peace talks that broke down last year, and U.S. officials said they hope formal negotiations could resume by February or March.

U.S. diplomats said they are talking with Israel and Arab governments about more clearly defining terms for negotiations, which hit an impasse when Israel refused to accept a total freeze on settlements in disputed territories. Arab governments, meanwhile, balked at U.S. calls for them to begin normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel.

On Friday, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan are meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, the Obama administration's point man on Mideast peace. Mrs. Clinton met Monday with Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani and discussed the peace process, U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials said Mr. Mitchell would follow up these deliberations with trips to Europe and the Middle East later this month.

Mr. Mitchell and other U.S. officials have moved to set a target date for concluding peace talks, saying they believed an accord can be forged within two years.

A central part of Mr. Mitchell's travels will be to line up support internationally for the peace process and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials said Mr. Mitchell will seek greater financial support for Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority from Arab and European governments, and will press other nations to adopt a unified position on the need for peace talks to resume immediately.

Still, it remains unclear if the Palestinian Authority will return to talks without a total freeze on Israeli settlements. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in November a 10-month cessation of most construction in the West Bank, but said settlement activity in East Jerusalem could continue.

In an interview Thursday, the Palestinian Liberation Organization's ambassador to Washington, Maen Areikat, said, "The Israelis must show good faith and good will by honoring all their past obligations. Once the atmosphere is prepared, we Palestinians are willing to start talks tomorrow."

Arab governments are demanding guarantees that the talks include establishing East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. They also want Israel to discuss the return of all lands annexed by the Jewish state following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel is seeking recognition of the demographic changes within its borders and its needs to keep some of the settlements established after the 1967 war.

"We are slowly but surely using public diplomacy to outline the terms of reference," said a U.S. official briefed on the efforts.

Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017