U.S. and other Mideast peace envoys scrambled Tuesday to salvage fading hopes of a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian talks, a day after their bosses couldn't even agree among themselves how to arm-twist the two sides back into negotiation.
Diplomats from the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia were meeting in Washington, trying to make some sort of headway. A highly-anticipated gathering hosted Monday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and attended by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, EU top diplomat Catherine Ashton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov failed to produce a unified statement on the way ahead.
"There are still significant gaps between these parties," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, referring to the mediators and the Israelis and Palestinians. She said the "quartet" of Mideast peacemakers had nothing to announce that might nudge Israelis and Palestinians back into direct talks after nine months of inaction.
The disappointment of Monday evening's dinner reflected the frustrating inability of mediators to find a basis for moving the peace process forward, something President Barack Obama most recently stabbed at in May when he endorsed Israel's pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benajmin Netanyahu wants the mediators in turn to publicly support Israel as a "Jewish" state, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pressing ahead with a plan to win U.N. recognition of Palestine as an independent country this autumn. Although both efforts are peaceful and may one day be acceptable to the opposing side, they have come to represent red lines in a negotiation that has been beset by failure over the last two decades.
The mediators have dramatically lowered their ambitions. A year ago, Obama declared that a framework agreement ending years of hostility and setting the stage for a two-state solution could be reached by September. That goal is dead, and the U.S. and its partners now only hope to get the two sides talking again.
"I hope it will still be possible to help the parties return to talks on a clear basis," Ban told reporters in New York.
But the fact that the top mediators were unable to reach consensus at their meeting underscored the slim chances for bringing the Israelis and Palestinians back to talks anytime soon.
Nuland refused to discuss what separated the quartet members, but allowed that there were problems. "It was live diplomacy, it was private diplomacy and it's difficult," she told reporters.
The situation is pressing because September's likely confrontation at the United Nations could set back efforts even further. The Palestinian plan for statehood is fiercely opposed by Israel. And the U.S. will likely have to veto a resolution at the Security Council to prevent full independence while borders, security arrangements, refugees and a host of other issues with Israel remain unresolved.
Abbas expressed disappointment on Tuesday with the quartet meeting's outcome, immediately underlining the consequences of continued disagreement among the mediators.
"Not having that statement is a negative signal. It shows that they have differences," he said at a meeting in the West Bank. "Our position is still to go to the U.N. in case the efforts to resume negotiations fail."
Lavrov, meanwhile, played down any sense of disagreement at a discussion at the Russian embassy in Washington.
"First, the wine was very good," he quipped. "And there was no disagreement on matters of principle. The fact that we didn't produce a statement doesn't mean we disagreed."
However, Lavrov acknowledged Russian unhappiness with the timing of the meeting, which he thought was too late. He said Russia wanted top officials to convene together four months ago.
The Israelis are still fuming at 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.
Israel wants the quartet to support its counter-demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." Such a declaration would have major implications for the Abbas government's relations with millions of Palestinian refugees, who demand that land claims pre-dating Israel's 1948 existence be respected.
Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.