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Clinton in Moscow for Mideast, Arms Reduction Talks

US secretary of state will meet members of the international quartet for the Middle East and Russian officials

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Moscow for a key international meeting on the Middle East peace process. She also meets with Russian leaders on efforts to conclude a new big-power nuclear arms reduction accord.

Clinton will meet with colleagues in the international quartet on the Middle East with peace efforts suddenly complicated by a U.S.-Israeli dispute over East Jerusalem home-building and a surge of Israeli-Palestinian unrest.

Secretary Clinton says the Obama administration was dismayed and disappointed by an Israeli announcement last week, coinciding with an Israel visit by Vice President Joe Biden, that it will build 1,600 new Jewish housing units in mainly-Arab East Jerusalem.

She scolded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an angry telephone conversation last Friday that triggered reports of a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations.

Officials here say an anticipated follow-up call to Clinton and conciliatory steps by Mr. Netanyahu have not occurred.

But the Israeli leader Wednesday praised President Obama's commitment to Israel's security and a senior U.S. official expressed hope the issue will die down somewhat in the coming days.

Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Philip Gordon, who is accompanying Clinton to Moscow, told a Washington seminar on U.S.-Turkish relations the U.S. criticism of Israel's Jerusalem action was an example of friends who are able to speak to each other frankly.

"We have an important partnership with Israel, and a close relationship with Israel. It goes on. It's important to us," said Gordon. "It's important to them. But that doesn't mean that we can't disagree with them when we have a frank difference. And we've been very clear that on this particular issue, we have a frank difference," he said.

The quartet - consisting of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - condemned the Israeli housing move last week and said the world community won't recognize unilateral steps by either side that could prejudice peace talks.

U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell put off a trip to the region this week aimed at starting indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But U.S. officials say he is likely to make the trip after attending the Moscow quartet meeting.

They say the United States would like to see statements from both the Israelis and Palestinians recommitting themselves to the peace process after events of the past week that, they say, included incitement by Palestinian officials over Israel's dedication of a rebuilt synagogue in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem's old city.

In addition to quartet meetings, Clinton will hold talks with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on bilateral issues, including negotiations on a new U.S.-Russia strategic arms reduction, or START, accord.

U.S. officials had originally expressed hope that a new START agreement could be ready by the time the previous one expired in December, but talks in Geneva have dragged on inconclusively.

Acting State Department Spokesman Mark Toner Wednesday declined to cast blame for the delay.

"Both sides have repeatedly stressed their commitment to reaching an agreement. Are there hard issues to tackle? Sure. But they remain hard at work and they're getting closer. But I can't predict when. The goal here is to get the best agreement we can get," said Toner.

Clinton and Lavrov are also expected to review efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program, with officials here saying Moscow supports the imposition of new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Tehran. Among veto-wielding permanent council members, only China is seen as a potential hold-out.