Israel is confident the US will block Palestinian moves to get the UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state, government officials said Wednesday, a day after Washington ditched its policy of making a total settlement freeze the cornerstone of its Mideast diplomatic process.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho is already in Washington, and Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat is expected there in the coming days to begin talks with the US on finding a new mechanism to move the sides into negotiations toward a framework agreement.

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The US announced that Middle East envoy George Mitchell would be returning to the region next week for talks as well. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, meanwhile, left last night for Washington, where he will take part in the annual Saban Forum, along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is expected to meet with Clinton and other top US officials during his stay.

Washington said its new approach on the Israeli- Palestinian peace process will be to focus on the final-status issues.

“We’re going to focus on the substance and try to make progress on the core issues themselves. We think that will create the kind of momentum we need to get to sustained and meaningful negotiations,” US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday.

“I would describe this as a change in tactics rather than a change in strategy. It’s not a change of our objectives at all,” he said.

He said that he didn’t anticipate the Israelis and Palestinians meeting together in Washington in the coming days, but avoided characterizing the process as returning to the proximity talks that were held before the launch of direct talks.

One idea being discussed, however, is that the US would talk separately with the sides on the “core issues” – borders, refugees, Jerusalem and security – in the hopes that this could pave the way for direct talks between the leaders. Israel opposed this idea in the past, preferring to discuss these issues directly with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have been adamant that there would be no more direct talks until there is a total settlement freeze.

Crowley didn’t make clear how the US planned to woo Palestinians back to the table after they have repeatedly ruled out direct talks without a freeze in place, nor would he characterize how they had responded to the new approach.

One Israeli official said Israel and US were “very close” to agreeing on a second settlement freeze until the US concluded that the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians were too wide to expect that key issues could be solved during the period of that freeze, and that the fear was the talks would explode as soon as the 90-day moratorium ended.

Furthermore, the official said, while Jerusalem was proposing a settlement construction moratorium in the West Bank, the Palestinians would not budge on their demand that this also include east Jerusalem.

“The settlement freeze was never the final goal,” the Israeli official said. “The goal is a historic peace agreement. The freeze was a mechanism to achieve that goal, but that mechanism has turned out to be flawed.”

Now, the official said, the search is on for a different mechanism.

The American announcement that it was essentially switching gears and looking for a new mechanism to push the diplomatic process forward led to calls inside the PA and in the Arab world Wednesday to ask the UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders, or have the Quartet come up with its own proposals for a solution.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, for instance, said during a visit to Bulgaria that the Americans, Quartet or “group of experts” should draft an agreement in the name of the international community and present it to the sides.

PA negotiator Nabil Sha’ath said the PA leadership would discuss asking the UN Security Council to recognize an independent Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders.

Israeli officials said, however, that the US was making clear to the Palestinians, Europeans and Arab government that trying to bypass the negotiations and going for a solution imposed by the outside would not be effective, and Crowley expressed his displeasure at the idea.

“To get to an agreement you’re going to have direct negotiations,” Crowley said. “We continue to believe that is the only mechanism through which we achieve success and we believe that bringing these issues to international fora will be a distraction and will just add complexity to an already difficult circumstance.”

Israeli officials said it was critical that the Palestinians realized all “exit doors” out of the negotiations were closed, and that there were no alternative routes to sitting down and talking directly.

One concern raised by the US decision to essentially go back to the drawing board, call the sides together in Washington and look for a new path into a framework agreement, is that this would only increase those calling for Palestinian unilateral action.

Officials in Jerusalem said such a unilateral Palestinian move would be a breach of previous Israeli-Palestinian accords and – in addition to leading Israel to take unilateral steps of its own, such as possible annexation of territory – would force Israel to re-examine its overall partnership with the Palestinian Authority.

Crowley, meanwhile, pointedly refused to assign blame on the US’s inability to get through a deal with Israel to extend the moratorium, saying that “there’s no good in finger-pointing.”

The State Department spokesman said the US felt both parties’ leaders acted in good faith.

“We believe that both sides are committed to this process. They want the United States to continue our involvement with this process,” he said.

“We understand that there are different political challenges on both sides … The politics on both sides did not actually enable us to move forward along a path through a settlement moratorium.”

Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.

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