JERUSALEM: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday pressed for a swift resumption of Middle East peace talks despite the Palestinian insistence that Israel first stop all settlement activity.
"I want to see both sides begin as soon as possible in negotiations," Clinton said in Jerusalem at a press conference that she and hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held ahead of their talks.
Clinton also hailed hawkish Netanyahu's stance on the thorny issue as "unprecedented," and seemed to reject the Palestinian demand for a total settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank before resumption of talks that were suspended amid the Gaza war at the turn of the year.
Earlier in the day Clinton held "difficult" talks in Abu Dhabi with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who Abbas slammed Israeli settlement activity as the main obstacle in resuming the negotiations.
"What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements... is unprecedented," Clinton said.
If negotiations are restarted, Netanyahu's concessions on the thorny issue "will be seen as being not only unprecedented but in response to many of the concerns being expressed" by the Palestinians, Clinton said.
Her support for the Israeli positions marked a sharp about turn from the US President Barack Obama administration's demand just months ago for a full Israeli settlement halt.
In May, following Obama's first meeting with Netanyahu, Clinton had said that Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements. Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions."
Clinton's visit to the region comes after repeated rounds of shuttle diplomacy by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in recent months yielded little progress in the US push to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Netanyahu called for an immediate resumption of peace talks without preconditions and charged that the Palestinians were using the issue of settlements as an excuse not to restart negotiations.
"There has not been over the past 16 years... since the beginning of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, any demand... on any limitation on settlement activity as a precondition for negotiations," Netanyahu said.
"It doesn't work to advance negotiations. It is actually being used as a pretext... as an obstacle that prevents the re-establishment of negotiations."
Clinton backed up the premier, saying: "What the prime minister is saying is historically accurate... there has never been a pre-condition it's always been an issue within negotiations."
Netanyahu said that would not build any new settlements, not expropriate land for additional or existing settlements and insisted on "normal life" within the communities -- a euphemism meaning expansion of existing large settlement blocs that Israel plans to keep under any peace deal.
Washington has for months been struggling to revive peace talks as part of a push toward a regional deal that would also see Israel strike peace with Syria and Lebanon and Arab states normalise relations with the Jewish state.
But the efforts have so far made little visible progress, with the issue of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, considered illegal by the international community, the main stumbling block to resuming talks.
After Israel balked at the initial US demand for a complete halt, Washington eased up and now says that the most important thing is for negotiations to resume.