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WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials are hopeful they can break an impasse that has threatened to kill new U.S.-brokered Mideast peace talks before they really begin.
A U.S. official close to the negotiations said Wednesday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems likely to cut a deal to keep the talks going. Palestinian officials said much the same, and Israeli officials said Netanyahu does not want talks to founder.
All spoke on condition of anonymity because the deliberations are closed and no decisions have been made. All the parties have previously said they want to continue negotiations, but the talks remain in limbo.
Without a compromise over the issue of Israeli settlement-building on disputed ground, the peace negotiations so strenuously sought by the Obama administration seem headed for collapse.
The White House is working furiously, applying pressure, floating proposals and making promises to both sides, before a Friday gathering of Arab leaders whose backing the Palestinians need in order to go forward.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Wednesday with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who represents the "Quartet" of international Mideast peacemakers, to try to find a solution. On Tuesday she spoke with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
Clinton, special Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell and Dennis Ross, the National Security Council's Mideast policy adviser, have been working with Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and their top negotiators.
Unless the United States and Israel can make a deal to at least postpone further building, all sides expect the Palestinians to walk away.
"We're at a critical stage in the process," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday.
"We want to see the negotiations continue," he said. "We don't want to see the parties step away from this process, and we continue to offer ideas to both sides as to how to navigate through the settlement issue that currently confronts us."
An Israeli official said Netanyahu was sounding out colleagues on a proposal to extend the slowdown for 60 days. Four of Israel's seven cabinet ministers were opposed, the official said. Netanyahu's own position was not clear.
U.S. officials caution that they do not know exactly what Netanyahu will do. For some Israeli politicians in his complex governing coalition, the collapse of talks, and an opportunity to blame both the United States and the Palestinians for it, would be a welcome outcome.
In Ramallah, there appeared to be widespread expectation Wednesday that Israel would ultimately agree on a U.S.-backed compromise before the 22-member Arab League begins its meeting. Abbas is expected to announce a decision on continuing the talks at that meeting.
Several senior Palestinians said the U.S. has proposed the two-month extension of the building moratorium.
Abbas has repeatedly said he can't negotiate if Israel does not extend the curbs on construction. New Jewish houses in the West Bank complicate the peace talk goal of drawing secure borders between Israel and a new Palestinian state. Most of the land Palestinians claim for that state is in the West Bank.
Israeli officials said the Netanyahu government has indirectly asked the Arab League to postpone a final decision on continuing peace talks and give Netanyahu more time to marshal support for a compromise.
The United States and Egypt, which has signed a peace treaty with Israel, have served as intermediaries, the officials said.
Netanyahu initially said he would not renew the moratorium, which expired last week. The United States had hoped he would agree to an extension before the moratorium ran out, and some officials have privately acknowledged that Netanyahu's refusal has eroded U.S. leverage.
A 60-day extension would postpone another showdown until after the Nov. 2 U.S. elections, something the U.S. and Palestinians apparently think would give the talks greater breathing room.
At the crux of the impasse is a power struggle between the U.S. and Israel, which wants firmer guarantees or concessions from Washington in exchange for extending the moratorium.
U.S. negotiators are reluctant to make too many promises to Israel now, at the outset of what are expected to be extremely difficult talks, for fear that Netanyahu will make far more extensive demands later on.
A former U.S. official with knowledge of the secretive American proposals now before Netanyahu said they are extremely vague, particularly about the composition of a security force in the Jordan Valley after a peace deal is signed.
The former official said the U.S. has proposed to "recognize Israel's security concerns and needs in the Jordan Valley as they exist today." The official said the proposal stops well short of endorsing an Israel Army presence there.
The language could be used, however, to signal that the United States would not object to international peacekeepers in the Jordan Valley, possibly with Israeli participation.