The Obama administration is gearing up for a fresh attempt to relaunch stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after the effort hit a dead end last year.
In a flurry of meetings in Washington and in European capitals this week and next, senior administration officials will explore new approaches to bringing the two sides together.
The new tack would include preparing letters for Israeli and Palestinian leaders that would lay out the endgame and guarantee U.S. support for a negotiated end to the conflict.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered no details Wednesday about the renewed U.S. commitment, but she and Mideast envoy George Mitchell will see Egyptian and Jordanian officials in Washington this week. Egypt and Jordan are essential to the peace push as they are Israel's only Arab neighbors to have fully recognized the Jewish state.
'Level of commitment'
The discussions began in earnest Monday — the first working day of the new year — when Clinton met with the prime minister of Qatar, whose country is among numerous Arab states the U.S. is asking to support the process.
"We're going to be even more committed this year, and we're starting this new year with that level of commitment and we're going to follow through and hopefully we can see this as a positive year in this long process," Clinton told reporters after the meeting.
President Barack Obama's attempt to restart the negotiations during his first year in office began with much fanfare with the appointment of Northern Ireland peace broker and former Sen. George Mitchell. But it failed amid Israeli-Palestinian recriminations and Arab reluctance to back the process without significant concessions from Israel.
Clinton and Mitchell are scheduled to meet at the State Department on Friday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
"Judeh will stress the importance of relaunching negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis under a clear and time-bound plan that addresses final status issues between the two parties, achieves a just and lasting peace and establishes an independent Palestinian state," the Jordanian Embassy in Washington said Wednesday.
Following those talks, Mitchell will travel Sunday to Paris and Brussels for meetings with his counterparts from the so-called Quartet of Mideast peacemakers — the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — and European diplomats before a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories later in the month, U.S. officials said.
Letters of 'guarantees'
When he travels to the region, Mitchell is expected to be carrying letters of "guarantees" outlining the U.S. position.
The letters are likely to contain gestures to both sides. For the Palestinians, that would include criticism of settlements and the belief that the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War be the basis of a future peace deal. For the Israelis, they would acknowledge that post-1967 demographic changes on the ground must be taken into account, meaning that Israel would be able to keep some settlements.
One aim of Mitchell's European stops is to prepare for a higher-level meeting of foreign ministers from the Quartet, which France has expressed an interest in hosting. That could happen toward the end of January, around international conferences on Afghanistan and Yemen that are to be held in London on Jan. 28.
Despite French President Nicolas Sarkozy's willingness to host such a meeting this month, Obama administration officials believe it may be too soon and are looking to push it off until after Mitchell returns to the region.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon met with Mitchell at the world body's headquarters in New York on Tuesday and said planning for a Quartet principals meeting was under way.
"We are now discussing when would be appropriate timing for principals of Quartet to meet together," Ban told reporters at the United Nations on Wednesday. "It may not happen during this month but this is a subject of continuous consultation."