Already dim prospects for any quick resumption to Mideast peace talks have been dealt a blow as international mediators failed to reach agreement on how to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a confrontation that is likely to set back efforts even further looms at the United Nations.
Faced with the urgent task of getting the two sides back to the table before the Palestinians seek recognition of an independent state at the U.N. in September, the "quartet" of Mideast peacemakers _ the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia _ was unable after hours of talks on Monday night to produce a unified statement on how to proceed. Such a statement had been an already modest goal of the meeting.
A senior U.S. official said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged that there were significant gaps are still impeding progress among both the mediators and the parties themselves and that "much more work" needs to be done before the quartet can issue a call to relaunch negotiations that stalled last September.
The official said talks would continue but acknowledged that the mediators were "realistic" about the gaps and could not come to consensus on how to address them. The quartet usually issues statements following meetings of its top officials, and the fact that none was forthcoming Monday underscored the slim chances for bringing the Israelis and Palestinians back to talks anytime soon.
The U.S. official refused to elaborate on the gaps but said now was a time for private diplomacy and not public statements, suggesting deep pessimism among the mediators for getting negotiations restarted before the Palestinians plan to bring their bid for independence before the United Nations General Assembly in September. That move is likely to make the decades-old deadlock even more intractable.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private working dinner among the quartet principals at the State Department.
Earlier Monday, Clinton and Ashton told reporters that the U.S. and European Union remained committed to getting the two sides back to the table. They said negotiations are the only way to resolve the conflict and Clinton noted that negotiations were what led to the creation of the world's newest state, South Sudan, this weekend after decades of civil war.
"Sudan and South Sudan negotiated a peace agreement that led to independence," she told reporters at a joint news conference with Ashton. "That is what we're asking the Palestinians and the Israelis to do."
But neither Israel nor the Palestinians have shown any sign they are ready to resume direct talks after nine months of inaction, and the Palestinian push for U.N. recognition has further complicated things.
The new U.S. special Mideast peace envoy, David Hale, and White House adviser Dennis Ross have been unable to persuade the Palestinians to back off. Israel and the U.S. support an independent Palestine but oppose attempts to establish one without negotiations.
The measure probably will pass, providing the Palestinians with increased diplomatic power, even though independence still will need U.N. Security Council approval, something the U.S. would surely veto.
The U.S. has been furiously trying without success to get the Israelis and Palestinians to commit to new discussions based on parameters President Barack Obama outlined in a May speech: two states based on the territorial boundaries that existed before the 1967 Mideast war, with some territory swaps to account for population shifts and security concerns.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential meetings, American officials have offered negative assessments of the atmosphere surrounding the peace process. They described it as gloomy and depressing.
And until last week, the United States wasn't even sure it made sense to meet with the other mediators, believing there was nothing new to discuss. Eventually, the administration relented to European calls to get together.
Speaking before the quartet meeting on the Voice of Palestine radio station, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians hoped for a strong statement from the group.
"The quartet needs not only to state that the negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders, but Israel also needs to endorse that in order for us to resume the peace talks," he said. He said that given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to these terms, "we demand the quartet hold Israel responsible for the collapse of the peace process."
The Israelis, meanwhile, are still fuming over Obama's May 19 speech. By endorsing language on territory that had long been a Palestinian goal as a basis for the talks, Obama upset Israel, which has maintained that all boundaries should be subject to negotiation.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.