Senior U.S. diplomats have returned to the Middle East for an unannounced visit to try to find a way to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed last year and now face new challenges.
Dennis Ross and David Hale's visit, confirmed by Israeli and Palestinian officials Wednesday, is their first to the region since special Mideast envoy George Mitchell resigned last month after failing to break the negotiations deadlock.
The first big challenge for the U.S. envoys is to find a formula for talks that would entice the Palestinians to drop their bid for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September. The Palestinians, who hope to establish a state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, adopted that strategy in frustration over the impasse.
"There are talks going on to see if there's a formula that will allow for the restarting of the talks that would cause the Palestinians to abandon their unilateral approach," said another Israeli official.
Both Israeli officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the visit was not announced publicly.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's office confirmed he met with Hale and Ross but did not release details.
They also met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday and discussed ways to renew peace talks, Israel Radio reported.
In a statement late Wednesday, Netanyahu reiterated his key demands for a resumption of talks. He said the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, accept a demilitarized Palestinian state with an Israeli security presence along its border with Jordan and drop their demand for a return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. He also said all of Jerusalem must remain in Israeli hands.
All are conditions previously rejected by the Palestinians.
Palestinian officials said the envoys would travel to Jordan to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday.
The latest round of peace talks collapsed in September, just three weeks after their launch, with the expiration of an Israeli moratorium on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.
The Palestinians refused to negotiate without a new moratorium that would also include east Jerusalem, and Israel would not yield to that demand. The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating if Israel continues to build homes in Jewish enclaves inside territories claimed by the Palestinians. Israel counters that the talks should resume without preconditions, and settlements should be one of the topics to be discussed.
Since the breakdown, the Palestinians have forged ahead with plans to seek U.N. recognition for a state, with or without a peace deal with Israel. That effort faces major obstacles, not least because the United States, which opposes it, has veto power on the Security Council, which must approve new member states.
The U.S. has indicated it will use its veto, though it hasn't explicitly said so, with President Barack Obama saying the unilateral campaign for U.N. recognition will not help peace efforts in the region.
The Palestinians have said they would prefer to resume negotiations, but plan on pushing forward with their campaign at the U.N., regardless of U.S. pressure.
"The efforts are focused now on how the issue (of U.N. recognition) could pass through the Security Council without colliding with a veto," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday.