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Clinton: Middle East 'Proximity Talks' Next Week

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell will return to the region next week to start indirect peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States is looking to Arab allies to provide more aid to the Palestinian Authority, and take confidence-building steps with Israel, to support the process.

The start of the so-called "proximity" talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, marks a step forward in U.S.-led efforts to revive the stalled regional peace process.

At at a joint press event with Kuwait's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Sabah, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear that the Obama administration wants to see the early resumption of full-scale direct negotiations.

"I think we've been very clear in our efforts that the resumption of talks is absolutely essential for the progress we seek toward a two-state solution," she said. "We will be starting with proximity talks next week. Senator Mitchell will be going back to the region, and we look forward to the meeting of the Arab [League] follow-up committee in Cairo tomorrow night to support the commitment by President Abbas to move forward with these talks."

The Arab League set up the committee to pursue implemetation of its 2002 peace initiative offering Israel political recognition if it withdraws from occupied areas and makes peace with the Palestinians.

In a Middle East policy address Thursday night, Clinton urged Arab countries to back up verbal statements of support for the Palestinian Authority with tangible financial aid.

She also said Arab moderates should reopen trade offices and make other confidence-building gestures toward Israel to show Israelis that peace would actually end the Jewish state's regional isolation.

Asked if Kuwait is ready to take such steps, Deputy Prime Minister al-Sabah stressed Kuwaiti support for U.S.-led peace efforts but would not be specific.

"We have supported the proximity talks during early March. Unfortunately the response from Israel was an announcement to build 1,600 houses in East Jerusalem, as if it was a response to our support for the proximity talks," he said. "Yet, we did not be discouraged by that. During the Arab summit in Tripoli we reconfirmed our commitment to the proximity talks to help the United States achieve this strategic objective."

In the proximity talks, U.S. envoy Mitchell - a former Senate Majority leader - is expected to shuttle between Israeli officials in Jerusalem and Palestinian officials in the nearby West Bank town of Ramallah.

Appearing with Clinton Thursday at a meeting of the American Jewish Committee, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel's right-leaning coalition government now sees a two-state solution of the Middle East conflict as a "compelling imperative." He said that is not as a favor to the Palestinians but to preserve Israel as a democratic, Jewish state.