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Mideast talks collapse as US freeze bid fails

JERUSALEM, Dec 8 – Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians appeared to have collapsed on Wednesday after Washington admitted its attempts to secure a fresh ban on Jewish settlement building had failed.

In a long-awaited announcement late on Tuesday, US officials admitted top-level efforts to coax Israel into imposing new curbs on West Bank settlement construction had gone nowhere.

Without a new freeze, the Palestinians have refused to negotiate, effectively deadlocking direct peace talks that started on September 2 but ran into difficulties just weeks later.

"We have been pursuing a moratorium as a means to create conditions for a return to meaningful and sustained negotiations," US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in New York City.

"After a considerable effort, we have concluded that this does not create a firm basis to work towards our shared goal of a framework agreement," Crowley said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials were now expected to visit Washington next week for talks with the US administration on ways to keep the process alive, he added.

Last Thursday, Palestinian officials told AFP they had been informed by US officials their efforts had failed, which US and Israeli officials refused to confirm at the time.

The United States has for weeks been trying to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a new moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

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A previous 10-month freeze expired on September 26, shortly after the launch of new peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians — the first direct negotiations in nearly two years.

It now appears the two sides are likely to return to some form of indirect negotiations, Crowley suggested.

"We will have further conversations on the substance with the parties, and we will continue to try to find ways to create the kind of confidence that will eventually, we hope, allow them to engage directly," he said.

Crowley\’s remarks suggested the talks were likely to return to the indirect format they took earlier this year, when US envoy George Mitchell spent four months shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

In Ramallah, the Palestinians placed the blame squarely on Israel.

"By refusing to give a clear answer to the United States, Israel has refused to freeze settlement building and to give a chance to peace in the region," an official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Direct talks were launched at a high-profile ceremony on September 2 after a 20-month hiatus, with Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas vowing to seek an agreement within a year.

They were supposed to meet every two weeks, but that arrangement collapsed after September 26, which marked the official end of a 10-month Israeli ban on settlement building in the West Bank.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, Washington offered Israel a package of diplomatic and security incentives in exchange for a new three-month ban.

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But Israel demanded the terms be spelled out in a letter, which would include a US commitment to let it continue building in occupied east Jerusalem. The letter never materialised.

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