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US Says Indirect Mideast Peace Talks Still On

The State Department said Thursday it believes indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will still be held despite Arab anger over Israeli plans to build more housing in East Jerusalem. U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is due in the region next week to seal plans for the so-called proximity talks.

Officials say Mitchell and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, are in phone contact with Israeli and Palestinian officials and key Arab governments in an effort to keep peace talks on track despite the controversial Israeli move.

Israel announced earlier this week it will build 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their envisaged independent state.

The announcement angered visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, and prompted press reports the Palestinians would scrap a previous commitment to enter indirect peace talks to be brokered by Mitchell.

But in a talk with reporters here, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States has gotten no notice from the Palestinians about pulling out of the proximity talks.

Crowley said the Israeli housing announcement was clearly counterproductive but that the angry political exchanges that have followed only underscore the need for the parties to get to negotiations that will resolve the underlying problem issues.

"It is in both the Israelis' and the Palestinians' interest to move forward in this process," said P.J. Crowley. "That is our key message. There are always going to be bumps in the road. But the only way to resolve these difficult issues is through discussions that lead to formal negotiations that lead to a peace agreement that addresses all of the key issues."

Spokesman Crowley said Mitchell still plans to go to the region next week to arrange the indirect talks, in which he will presumably shuttle between Israeli officials in Jerusalem and Palestinians in the nearby West Bank town of Ramallah.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to go to Moscow late next week for a meeting of the international Middle East Quartet an informal grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, that has tried to advance peace efforts.

Clinton will also have bilateral talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on lagging nuclear arms reduction negotiations and possible new U.N. sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed regret over the timing of the East Jerusalem housing announcement, which came shortly after Vice President Biden's arrival Tuesday, but has given no indication it will be rescinded.

The Vice President condemned the action and reaffirmed the criticism Thursday in Tel Aviv, saying only a friend of Israel can deliver the hardest truth.

Mr. Biden went on later to Amman, where Jordan's King Abdullah said such steps threaten the peace process and put the region at risk of a new cycle of conflict.