WASHINGTON – The US is increasing its calls for Israelis and Palestinians to move to direct negotiations, even as Palestinians continue to demand Israeli concessions before moving on from proximity talks.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described the US posture on Tuesday as having “a full court press under way to see if we can move to direct negotiations.”

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Crowley’s comments came after reports that US Middle East envoy George Mitchell had told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Washington might not be able to help the Palestinians attain their goals if they did not move to direct talks soon.

Israel has been stressing its interest in moving to face-toface negotiations after several weeks of proximity talks, though the government has also sent signals that it was losing patience with Palestinian positions.

A major Palestinian demand has focused on extending the settlement moratorium past September, which Prime Minister Netanyahu set as the end of the freeze when he announced it in November. Observers have suggested that the construction halt could be extended if direct talks were under way.

On Wednesday, though, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beiteinu rejected the notion that the moratorium would be extended past September and dismissed any linkage between the freeze and direct talks.

But Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the highest-ranking Labor Party member of the coalition and a key point man for the US on matters related to the peace process, is in Washington this week to reiterate Israel’s interest in moving forward in its discussions with the Palestinians.

After Barak’s meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday, Crowley described their 45-minute oneon- one session as part of “an ongoing part of our effort to try to push the parties to direct negotiations as soon as possible.”

Barak, whose visit to the US concludes on Thursday, met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday, where Iran and maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge – particularly through air capabilities – were the focus.

Barak also spoke to Fox News about Iran on Tuesday, calling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “quite a sophisticated but bizarre character.”

Barak said that while “even tougher sanctions might not be sufficient” to halt Iran’s nuclear program, right now is “still the time for sanctions,” and that in any case “we have to exhaust alternatives.”

He wouldn’t answer a question about whether Israel had a timeline before facing a point of no return, presumably triggering a military strike, but the defense minister did say, “It’s clear that beyond a certain point, an operation against Iran might not be that relevant, both for the US and for anyone else.”


Barak noted that Israel was urging that all countries, itself included, leave all options for dealing with Iran on the table.

He rejected the suggestion that Israel had lost faith in the Obama administration’s handling of Iran over the past few months of tension between the two allies, as well as the notion that the White House was prepared to accept a nuclear Iran.

“There are certainly differences of perspectives about timelines and what exactly could be done about it, but I find no love lost between this administration and the Iranians,” he said. “I think that they are showing quite a readiness to look reality in the eyes.”

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