The US administration has informed the Palestinian Authority that its policy toward the issue of settlements hasn't changed, despite recent statements made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that lauded Israeli gestures to curb Jewish construction in the West Bank, PA officials said on Tuesday.
They said, however, that the US "clarifications" were still insufficient to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table with Israel, despite American pressure.
The latest American stance was relayed to PA President Mahmoud Abbas by Washington's special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, during a meeting in Jordan on Tuesday, the officials said. It was the second meeting of its kind between the two in 48 hours. Abbas also met with Clinton in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.
The activity comes a week before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is set to head to the United States. It is unclear yet if he will meet with President Barack Obama during his stay.
In the last week, the prime minister has met twice with Mitchell and once with Clinton.
At a press conference with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Saturday night, Clinton angered the Palestinians and Arab leaders when she called his moratorium on new settlement starts "unprecedented," even though he has simultaneously insisted that Israel will finish work on 3,000 new homes in the settlements and will continue to build in east Jerusalem.
In a speech in Marrakech on Tuesday, Clinton urged a united effort in pursuit of comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
"And I think that does require that all parties should be careful about what we say - the kind of recriminations that are so understandable. But we need to work together in a constructive spirit toward this shared goal of a comprehensive peace. I feel very strongly that it is attainable," she said.
Clinton then flew to Cairo for a hastily arranged meeting with senior Egyptian government officials, including President Hosni Mubarak. She had been scheduled to fly home on Tuesday but said late Monday she would be traveling instead to Cairo to continue consultations on the peace process. The decision appeared linked to Egyptian concern about signs of a recalibration of the US approach to the peace process.
Mitchell in his talks with Abbas did his best to reassure the Palestinians that the US held firm to its past views and opposed settlement construction.
"The American envoy told President Abbas that the US administration's policy regarding the settlements hasn't changed," chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "He said that Washington continues to see the settlements as illegal and does not recognize the annexation of east Jerusalem to Israel."
Erekat said that Abbas stressed during the meeting the need to stop all construction work in the settlements, including in the eastern part of Jerusalem, as well as "natural growth" in these areas, as a precondition to any negotiations with Israel.
The government has said that the talks should resume without any preconditions, and its top leaders including Netanyahu and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon have in recent days called on the Palestinians to speak with them.
"We believe the offers we have made are far-reaching toward the Palestinians," Ayalon told journalists and diplomats at The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on Tuesday morning. "We are waiting for the Palestinians to just sit with us."
It was a mistake to reduce the complex questions that divide Israelis and Palestinians to one concrete problem, such as the settlements, said Ayalon.
"If you reduce the entire process into one issue, as the single most important issue, than you do not have much leverage and flexibility to move ahead and do some quid pro quo," he said.
Ayalon accused the Palestinians of changing the rules by which negotiations are held by demanding that Israel stop all settlement construction as a precondition to talks.
Erekat said that the Palestinians had asked the US administration for clarifications following remarks made by Clinton in Jerusalem on Saturday night, where she said they should resume peace talks with Israel unconditionally.
"President Abbas emphasized that its demand that Israel cease all settlement activity was not a Palestinian precondition, but something that Israel is obliged to do under the terms of the road map plan for peace in the Middle East," Erekat said.
The PA negotiator said that Mitchell reaffirmed Obama's commitment to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Erekat and other senior PA officials said that despite Mitchell's clarifications and attempts by Clinton to moderate her earlier statements on the settlements, the PA leadership was determined to stick by its demand for a complete freeze.
"There must be a full cessation of all settlement activities, including the construction work inside Jerusalem," said Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas. "We also insist that the so-called natural growth in the Jewish settlements be stopped."
A senior PA official warned that the growing US pressure on Abbas to resume the talks with Israel unconditionally would cause further harm to the PA president's credibility.
"The pressure on President Abbas will backfire," he said. "President Abbas will lose his credibility if he is forced to resume the peace talks with Israel while the construction in the settlements is continuing."
The Fatah Revolutionary Council, which consists of more than 100 top operatives from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, on Tuesday expressed full support for Abbas and issued a scathing attack on Clinton, accusing her of tampering with the rights of the Palestinians.
The council voiced deep disappointment with the apparent change in Washington's attitude toward the settlements, dubbing it a blow to efforts to resume the peace process.
On Tuesday morning, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that during his trip to Washington with Netanyahu next week, they would try to reach understandings on the issue of settlements with the Obama administration.
In Morocco on Tuesday, Clinton said the US was committed to a two-state solution.
"I know this is a matter that is of grave and pervasive concern among the countries represented here, but even far beyond this region," she said. "We are committed to a two-state solution."
AP and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.