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    US: Direct Mideast Talks Deal Very Close

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    The State Department said Thursday an agreement for the start of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is close to completion. The deal will apparently be sealed by statements from the United States and the International Middle East Quartet.

    U.S. officials have been reporting incremental progress in the peace contacts for several days.

    But State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday an agreement to upgrade Israeli-Palestinian contacts to direct negotiations is very, very close, and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was involved in telephone diplomacy to seal the deal.

    Crowley said Clinton spoke late Wednesday with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, to among other things assure him that the Palestinian Authority will have international financial backing during a negotiating process aimed at Palestinian statehood.

    The spokesman said the Secretary spoke Thursday with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now serving as Middle east envoy for the international Middle East Quartet, consisting of the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations.

    It has long been expected that the Quartet, which issued a road map to Middle East peace in 2003, would launch the envisaged direct talks with a statement announcing a framework, venue, and possible timetable for the negotiations.

    At a news briefing Thursday, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley indicated strongly that as a result of last-minute bargaining, the United States will also issue a separate statement of its expectations for the talks:

    "We believe if we reach the point we hope to arrive at that members of the Quartet will demonstrate their support for the process, we will demonstrate our support for the process, and we will outline specifics of where we go from here. We are not at that point yet," said Crowley.  "There are still details that we're working through. We're not going to do the negotiation in public. We want to make sure that the parties have the right understanding of what they're agreeing to, to move this process forward with the appropriate set of expectations."

    Israel in recent days had expressed concern about the Quartet setting parameters for direct talks, and a parallel U.S. statement may be aimed at easing those misgivings.

    U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who has been shuttling back and forth to the region brokered the current round of indirect or proximity talks several months ago.

    Israel has stated its readiness to upgrade the dialogue but the Palestinians have been more hesitant. Late last month the Arab League endorsed a move to direct talks, while leaving a decision on the timing to Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas.

    The broad outlines of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace accord have been established in previous negotiating efforts.

    Secretary Clinton has spoken in recent months of an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state with borders based on pre-1967 lines, but with agreed land swaps and reflecting subsequent developments.

    The United States holds that the thorniest issues in the peace process including refugees and the status of Jerusalem are for the parties to decide in final-status talks.

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