U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is returning to the region shortly amid Obama administration pressure on the Palestinians to enter direct peace talks with Israel.
State Department officials say Mitchell will leave Washington in the next few days on a potentially-decisive mission aimed at upgrading U.S. sponsored "proximity talks" between Israel and the Palestinians to full-scale direct negotiations.
Mitchell, a former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and Northern Ireland peace envoy, has been mediating indirect talks between the sides for several weeks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week said he was ready for direct talks with the Palestinians within days.
But Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas has hesitated - voicing doubts that the Israeli leader is serious in his desire for peace.
Late last week, the Arab League committee charged with advancing the organization's 2002 peace initiative with Israel endorsed direct talks while leaving the timing to Mr. Abbas.
The Arab League action followed a letter from President Obama to Mr. Abbas last month in which Mr. Obama is widely reported to have warned of a possible downgrade in U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority unless it moved to direct talks.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley refused to discuss the contents of the U.S. message but at the same time saying the Palestinians have much to lose if the current opportunity is lost.
"Absent a direct negotiation, there will be no end to the conflict, there will be no peace agreement, and there will be no Palestinian state," said P.J. Crowley. "That's a fact. We understand the recent history and the difficulty in reaching this moment. We've worked hard to help each side understand what the other needs. We believe strongly that this is the right time to enter direct negotiations. That's the argument that we're making to both sides."
A senior official who spoke to reporters here said United States would support a Palestinian proposal for a three-way meeting next week that would set the parameters for direct negotiations.
Reports from the region say the participants in the trilateral would be U.S. envoy Mitchell, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and Israeli envoy Isaac Molho.
Spokesman Crowley said the United States is not trying to force either side to negotiate, but said the longer they delay the more impetus it gives to radicals to try to prevent the peace process from moving forward.
He said an immediate example is Monday's rocket attack, apparently aimed at the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat, that killed one person and wounded several others in the adjacent Jordanian port of Aqaba.
Crowley called the attack, attributed by Israel to al-Qaida-linked militants in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, "reprehensible." Egyptian officials deny the rockets came from their territory.