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U.S. officials: Mideast negotiations may start soon

/ Source: news services

The Obama administration said Thursday it is near to securing an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct peace talks. Some U.S. officials said an announcement could be imminent.

The State Department said an agreement was "very, very close" but that details were still being worked out. An announcement could come as early as Friday or Saturday, said administration officials familiar with the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the ongoing diplomacy.

"We think we are very, very close to a decision by the parties to enter into direct negotiations," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. "We think we're well positioned to get there."

Reuters news service, reporting from Vineyard Haven, Mass., said the direct peace talks Sept. 2 in Washington and that President Barack Obama would attend.

Envoys from the so-called Quartet of powers — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — agreed to the details Thursday, a source told Reuters. A formal statement would be issued Friday.

Earlier, Crowley said, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had called Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad late Wednesday and spoken Thursday with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special representative of the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers — the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia.

Officials said tentative plans call for Israel, the Palestinians, the Quartet and the U.S. to release separate but near simultaneous statements saying the stalled talks will resume early next month in either the U.S. or Egypt. The U.S. statement is expected to be issued in Clinton's name.

Crowley declined to comment on the arrangements but said that "if we reach the point we hope to arrive at ... we will demonstrate our support for the process and we will outline specifics of where we go from here."

Israeli and Palestinian officials refused to comment. They said they would react after an official announcement is made about the talks, and added that they did not have advance information about the content.