- Associated Press - Friday, December 10, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration sought a new strategy for salvaging the U.S.-led Middle East peace talks Friday, less than a week after dropping an effort to persuade Israel to impose a temporary freeze on some settlement activity.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton planned talks with senior officials from both sides in advance of an evening speech to a Washington think tank on the administration’s plans for the way forward.

Mrs. Clinton was scheduled to meet with the Palestinian prime minister, the lead Palestinian negotiator, the Israeli defense minister, Israel’s former foreign minister and the U.N. special envoy for the region.

On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton held lengthy talks with Israel’s chief negotiator. The administration’s special Mideast peace envoy will travel to the region next week.

The effort comes just days after the United States dropped its bid to persuade Israel to renew a freeze in West Bank settlement construction, a key Palestinian demand for returning to the talks stalled since an earlier slowdown expired in late September. The change in approach followed months of grueling diplomacy that, administration officials say, led them to conclude the focus on settlements over strong Israeli objections was a distraction from dealing with core issues such as security and borders.

Emerging from the State Department after his talks with Mrs. Clinton, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat blamed the Israeli government for the breakdown in talks and said the Palestinians would continue to consult with the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League on how to proceed.

“They are alone responsible for the derailment of the peace process,” Mr. Erekat told reporters. “The Israeli government had a choice between settlements and peace and they chose settlements.” He said the Palestinian position was unchanged and offered no predictions as to what might be next.

In her speech to the Brookings Institution, part of a conference that also will feature Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Mrs. Clinton is expected to express disappointment at the failure of the administration’s efforts to date. She is expected to say, however, that President Obama and his administration have not given up and will aggressively pursue a peace deal.

U.S. officials say their hope is to make progress on security issues and toward setting a final border between Israel and a future Palestinian state in separate talks with the two sides, planning to pave the way for resumption of direct negotiations and an ultimate peace deal.

Officials said they expect Mrs. Clinton to highlight the importance of security and borders in her speech and appeal for the parties to prepare to discuss those matters in depth with American officials in the coming weeks.

U.S. envoy George Mitchell is to leave early next week for the Middle East for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He also will visit neighboring Arab states.

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