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Israel, Palestinians Poised For Direct Talks

Updated at 5:30 a.m. Eastern.

The Obama administration said Thursday it was near to securing an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct peace talks for the first time in 20 months, and two published reports said a deal had already been reached.

U.S. officials suggested to the Associated Press that an announcement was imminent, but The New York Times and the Reuters news agency went further, saying unnamed sources had confirmed that President Obama would invite the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to join him in Washington for face-to-face talks in early September.

Reports: Israelis, Palestinians to Resume Talks in U.S.

Reuters reported that Mr. Obama would be present at the talks, citing an anonymous diplomatic source, who said they would likely kickoff on Sept. 2.

According to The Times, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to announce the resumption of direct talks on Friday.

On the record, the State Department told the AP an agreement was "very, very close" but that details were still being worked out. An announcement could come as early as Friday or Saturday, said administration officials familiar with the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the ongoing diplomacy.

"We think we are very, very close to a decision by the parties to enter into direct negotiations," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. "We think we're well positioned to get there."

To that end, he said, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had called Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad late Wednesday and spoken Thursday with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special representative of the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers - the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia.

Officials said tentative plans call for the Quartet and the U.S. to release separate statements saying the stalled talks will resume early next month in either the U.S. or Egypt. The U.S. statement, expected to be issued in Clinton's name, and the Quartet statement would serve as invitations for the talks, they said.

The Israelis and Palestinians would then accept, the officials said.

Crowley declined comment on the specific arrangements but suggested multiple statements were in the works.

"As part of the Quartet we are prepared to demonstrate our support for the parties as they move towards this decision," he said. "But we, the United States, have always played a special role within this effort, and we will be prepared to assist the parties going forward in moving towards a successful negotiation. So we can do both."

The Palestinians had been balking at direct talks until the Quartet reaffirmed a March statement calling for a peace deal based on the pre-1967 Mideast war borders, and for talks to be completed within two years.

But Israel rejected that, saying it amounted to placing conditions on the negotiations. Israel had been demanding a separate invitation from the U.S.

Details of the timing and location of talks remained unclear on Thursday. The U.S. officials said they were still shooting for around Sept. 1 in either Washington, Cairo or the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheik.

Timing is critical because of religious holidays, the upcoming annual session of the U.N. General Assembly in the third week of September and the Sept. 26 expiration of a temporary 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

Another key element in negotiations to even agree on holding talks is Israel's reluctance to stop construction in Jewish settlements.

Netanyahu's government partially froze construction in West Bank settlements until the middle or end of September, but it's unclear whether the framework for the talks will permit the building to resume after that deadline.

A report in The Independent says a draft of the agreement reached to hold the talks calls for an adherence to the principles of previous negotiation frameworks; most importantly that Israel will give back Palestinian lands claimed after a 1967 border war, and halt all settlement construction.

According to British newspaper, the direct talks are intended to last just one year, and in that time to resolve "all the core issues" dividing the two sides and establish a new reality, "that ends the occupation... and results in a [Palestinian] state at peace with Israel."

Israeli and Palestinian officials refused to comment. They said they would react after an official announcement is made, and added that they did not have advance information about the content.

The Obama administration has been pushing for a speedy resumption of face-to-face negotiations that broke down in December 2008. U.S. special Mideast envoy George Mitchell has been shuttling between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for months in a bid to get them to agree.

Abbas is wary of entering open-ended talks with Netanyahu, who has retreated from some concessions offered by his predecessors. Abbas wants Israel to accept the principle of Palestinian statehood in the lands Israel occupied in the 1967 war with minor modifications, and wants all Jewish settlement activity halted during the talks.

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