Obama, Netanyahu talk Iran, Middle East peace

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed recent Israeli-Palestinian talks on Thursday as U.S. officials signaled that a Jan. 26 target date for the two sides to exchange proposals could slide.

Obama and Netanyahu, who have at times appeared out of sync on Middle East peace efforts, spoke after two rounds of diplomatic contacts between Israeli and Palestinian officials in Jordan’s capital in recent weeks.

“They reviewed the recent meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Amman and the president reaffirmed his commitment to the goal of a comprehensive and lasting peace in the region,” the White House said in a statement summarizing a phone call between the leaders.

The exploratory talks follow a long break in negotiations after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended talks 15 months ago over Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The “Quartet” of international peace mediators – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – sought in October to revive the talks, laying out a timeline they said should yield concrete proposals from both sides by Jan. 26.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Thursday this deadline could slip if there are signs of progress in the initial discussions.

“Our priority all the way along has been for these parties to start talking directly to each other, so that’s why we consider what’s going on in Jordan so encouraging,” Nuland told a news briefing.

“We don’t want them, or anybody else, to get so fixated on the date that it chills the mood. We want them to keep going on the hard work that they’re doing together.”

Nuland said the Quartet still hoped its broader roadmap, which calls for the Palestinians and Israelis to reach a peace agreement by the end of 2012, would hold.

“Obviously we want this to happen as soon as possible. That was the point of putting dates on the table,” Nuland said. “But again, when dates become a straightjacket, it can take you backwards. We want to go forward.”

U.S. officials hope the contacts may open the door to a discussion of the central issues in the conflict, and lead the two sides to state their positions on the borders and security arrangements of a future “two-state solution”.

There has been little public comment from any of the principals thus far. Nuland said all sides were agreed the Jordanian government would make whatever statements were necessary about the closed-door discussions.

The major issues dividing the two sides include the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, Laura Macinnis and Andrew Quinn; Editing by Jackie Frank