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Clinton Meets Abbas In New Middle East Peace Push

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

ABU DHABI (Reuters) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed on October 31 to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume talks with Israel, a spokesman for Abbas said, citing Jewish settlements as a stumbling block.

Clinton, ramping up efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama to revive negotiations suspended since December, flew to Israel after seeing Abbas in Abu Dhabi. She planned to hold an evening meeting in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"There was no breakthrough in the talks," Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters by telephone.

"President Abbas reiterated to Clinton that the Palestinians would not resume talks before a total settlement freeze and without setting a clear goal for the negotiations," Abu Rdainah said.

Palestinians have been angered by what they saw as Obama's softening in September of his demand that Israel abide by a 2003 peace "road map" that called for a halt to settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.

After talks with Abbas and Netanyahu in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Obama urged Israel only to show restraint on the settlement issue.

Netanyahu, who heads a right-leaning government, has rejected a complete cessation of construction in settlements, saying the needs of growing families must be met.

He has said he intends to push on with the construction of 3,000 settler homes under already approved projects and continue building houses for Jews in East Jerusalem.

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in a 1967 war and Palestinians fear settlements there would deny them a viable state. Some 500,000 Israelis live in the two areas alongside 2.8 million Palestinians.

Before arriving in Abu Dhabi, Clinton said she would underscore to both sides that Obama was unflagging in his desire to see a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

"Obviously, we can't want this more than the parties want it. I mean, that's just the way negotiations are. But the fact that the United States is engaged, and that we are serious about this engagement, is, in and of itself, I think a very positive message," Clinton told the BBC in an interview.

Clear Picture

A senior State Department official said Clinton hoped to get a clear picture of where the two sides stand before she meets Arab foreign ministers at a development summit in Morocco next week to try to drum up regional support for peace moves.

"She reported to the president last week that the process is going through a difficult patch and she is using the opportunity, being in the region, to consult with the leaders, see where they are, and how we can get the process moving forward again," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Clinton's weekend visit to the Middle East is her second since Obama took office in January. A senior U.S. envoy, George Mitchell, has been shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders every few weeks.

But there is scant sign that the talks can be revived soon.

Clinton said the United States continued to have "very serious questions about the settlements that Israel has promoted," but also grasped the politics at work.

"We understand that to a large extent, it has to do with their security needs and fears about trying to have a defensible perimeter around Israel," she told the BBC.