Clinton cites challenges in Mideast peace effort

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton briefed President Obama on Thursday on the status of the administration's push for new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The message: still a work in progress.

Obama had announced Sept. 22 that he would seek a report from Clinton in mid-October after he had brought together the Palestinian and Israeli leaders for a rare three-way meeting. At the time he signaled impatience with the months of stalemate about when and how to relaunch the talks, declaring: "It is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward."

Since then, the president's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell, has shuttled repeatedly between the parties seeking agreement on parameters for the talks. But a senior Obama administration official, in an e-mailed statement to reporters after Clinton's briefing, made it clear that there is not yet a deal.

"The Secretary advised the president that challenges remain as the United States continues to work with both sides to relaunch negotiations in an atmosphere in which they can succeed," the official said.

Echoing comments made by Obama four weeks ago, the official praised Palestinians for strengthening "their efforts on security and reforming Palestinian institutions" and said Israel had "facilitated greater movement for Palestinians and responded to our call to stop all settlement activity by expressing a willingness to curtail settlement activity." But he said both sides need to do more and "move forward toward direct negotiations."

To that end, Mitchell will soon return to the region and Clinton will consult with Arab foreign ministers in Morrocco in early November, the official said.

In many ways, the gap between the two sides appears to have grown since Obama met with the leaders. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has toughened his public stance after he faced criticism at home for initially delaying a debate on a report by the U.N. Human Rights Council accusing Israel of war crimes during last winter's war in the Gaza Strip. The report also accused the militant group Hamas of similar crimes. But U.S. officials privately say that there continues to be slow, if steady, progress and that the administration remains intent on restarting talks by the end of the year.

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