WASHINGTON – The United States and its partners in the international diplomatic "quartet" on the Middle East failed on Monday to reach agreement on how to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, dealing a blow to urgent efforts to avert a looming confrontation at the United Nations over recognizing Palestine as an independent nation.
A senior U.S. official said a Monday night meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was unable to produce a unified statement on how to proceed. Such a statement had been a modest goal of the meeting.
The official said that significant gaps are still impeding progress among both the mediators and the parties themselves and that "much more work" needs to be done before the quartet can issue a call to re-launch negotiations that stalled last September. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private working dinner among the quartet principals at the State Department.
The official said talks would continue but acknowledged that the mediators could not come to consensus on how to address the gaps. The official refused to elaborate.
The quartet usually issues statements following meetings of its top officials. The fact that none was forthcoming on Monday underscored the slim chances for bringing the Israelis and Palestinians back to talks anytime soon.
The Palestinians plan to bring their bid for independence before the U.N. General Assembly in September. That move is likely to make the decades-old deadlock even more intractable.
Earlier Monday, Clinton and Ashton told reporters that the U.S. and European Union remained committed to getting the two sides back to the table. They said negotiations are the only way to resolve the conflict and Clinton noted that negotiations were what led to the creation of the world's newest state, South Sudan, last weekend after decades of civil war.
"Sudan and South Sudan negotiated a peace agreement that led to independence," she told reporters at a joint news conference with Ashton. "That is what we're asking the Palestinians and the Israelis to do."
"What we strongly advocate is a return to negotiations, because a resolution, a statement, an assertion is not an agreement," she said, referring to the Palestinian move at the U.N. "And the path to two states living side by side in peace and security lies through direct negotiation. And the sooner the parties get back to that, the sooner there can be the result that many of us have worked for a long time."
But neither Israeli officials nor the Palestinians have shown any sign they are ready to resume direct talks after nine months of inaction and the Palestinian push for U.N. recognition has further complicated things.
The new U.S. special Mideast peace envoy, David Hale, and White House adviser Dennis Ross have been unable to persuade the Palestinians to back off. Israel and the U.S. support an independent Palestine but oppose attempts to establish one without negotiations.
The measure probably will pass, providing the Palestinians with increased diplomatic power, even though independence still will need U.N. Security Council approval, something the U.S. would surely veto.
The U.S. has been trying furiously without success to get the Israelis and Palestinians to commit to new discussions based on parameters President Barack Obama outlined in a May speech: two states based on the territorial boundaries that existed before the 1967 Mideast war, with some territory swaps to account for population shifts and security concerns.
Until last week, the United States wasn't even sure it made sense to meet with the other mediators, believing there was nothing new to discuss. Eventually the administration relented to European calls to get together, but little of substance was expected.
Speaking before the quartet meeting on the Voice of Palestine radio station, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians hoped for a strong statement from the group.
"The quartet needs not only to state that the negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders but Israel also needs to endorse that in order for us to resume the peace talks," he said. He said that given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to these terms, "we demand the quartet hold Israel responsible for the collapse of the peace process."
The Israelis, meanwhile, are still fuming over Obama's May 19 speech. By endorsing language on territory that had long been a Palestinian goal as a basis for the talks, Obama upset Israel, which has maintained that all boundaries should be subject to negotiation.
Netanyahu is looking for a concession from the Palestinians in return. Diplomats say he hopes to secure an explicit statement that the Palestinians will recognize Israel as a Jewish state before entering talks.
Netanyahu has rejected any talks with a Palestinian government including Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. brand a terrorist organization. Abbas has shown an apparent willingness to delay the formation of a unity government with Hamas, but once it happens it will likely jeopardize the process.