ABU DHABI - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday, launching a rapid series of meetings with Palestinian and Israeli officials to keep up pressure for a new Mideast peace deal.
Clinton met Abbas in Abu Dhabi after winding up a trip to Pakistan. She was due to fly to Israel later on Saturday for evening meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
A senior State Department official said Clinton's meetings were intended to supply an on-the-ground picture of where the two sides stand before she meets Arab foreign ministers at a development summit in Morocco next week to try to drum up regional support for peace moves.
She reported to the president last week that the process is going through a difficult patch and she is using the opportunity, being in the region, to consult with the leaders, see where they are, and how we can get the process moving forward again, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Before arriving in Abu Dhabi, Clinton said she would underscore to both sides that President Barack Obama was unflagging in his desire to see a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.
Obviously, we can't want this more than the parties want it. I mean, that's just the way negotiations are. But the fact that the United States is engaged, and that we are serious about this engagement, is, in and of itself, I think a very positive message, Clinton told the BBC in an interview.
LITTLE SIGN OF REVIVING TALKS
Clinton's weekend visit to the Middle East is her second since Obama took office in January. A senior U.S. envoy, George Mitchell, has been shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders every few weeks.
But there is scant sign that the talks themselves, suspended in December, can be revived soon.
Abbas insists Israel freeze settlement activity under a 2003 road map for peace, a demand Netanyahu has rejected.
Netanyahu has given in to U.S. pressure to talk of negotiating the creation of a Palestinian state, but only if it is demilitarized and if Palestinians agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Clinton said the United States continued to have very serious questions about the settlements that Israel has promoted, but also grasped the politics at work.
We understand that to a large extent, it has to do with their security needs and fears about trying to have a defensible perimeter around Israel, she told the BBC.
Clinton said the peace drive had been complicated by a U.N. report accusing Israel and Hamas militants of war crimes during Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip. The report criticized both sides in the December-January war, which killed up to 1,387 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, but was harsher toward Israel.
Both Israel and Hamas denied committing any war crimes. Israel has criticized the report as unbalanced and says the 47-nation Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, which commissioned the report, is biased against the Jewish state.
I wouldn't question the fact that some of what has happened in the last weeks has made it more difficult, Clinton said, adding that Washington saw a lot of problems with the report, which the U.N. General Assembly plans to debate as early as next week.
The State Department official said Clinton would also meet on Saturday Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the first of a number of Arab leaders and ministers she plans to lobby this week to support new peace talks.
These are fundamentally calculations made by the parties themselves, but a critical piece is making sure that there is going to be support in the region, not only for negotiation but ultimately for agreement, the official said.
(Reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Tim Pearce)