Obama administration officials say an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct peace talks is imminent, a small but important step toward easing tensions in the region.
An announcement on restarting the peace process after more than a year and a half was expected as early as Friday, said administration officials familiar with the matter. They spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the ongoing diplomacy.
Resumption of the talks would mark a diplomatic victory for the White House, which has struggled to get both sides back to the bargaining table.
"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 Thursday. "We think we're well positioned to get there."
Crowley said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had called Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and spoken with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair is the special representative of the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers -- the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia.
Plans called 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, officials said.
The two statements would serve as invitations for the talks, they said. The Israelis and Palestinians were expected to promptly accept the invitations, the officials said.
Crowley declined comment on the specific arrangements. "As part of the Quartet we are prepared to demonstrate our support for the parties as they move towards this decision," he said.
The Palestinians had been balking at direct talks until the Quartet repeated their support for 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.
Timing of the talks 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.
Israeli and Palestinian officials refused to comment. They said they would react after an official announcement is made.
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.