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Netanyahu, Clinton meet for 7 hours
(Courtesy of the Jerusalem Post) Marathon bid held to find path to new peace talks; Israeli officials call meetings "very serious," say "everything is on the table."

NEW YORK – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held talks that were "friendly and productive" and stressed the importance of continuing direct negotiations in pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, according to a joint statement put out by the two governments Thursday evening.

The two sides indicated that officials would continue to meet in the days ahead in order to create "conditions for the resumption of direct negotiations," which have stalled ever since the Israelis let a settlement freeze lapse and Palestinians have demanded the freeze be extended as a condition of the talks.

Clinton also reiterated the US position that negotiations can reconcile "an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps" for the Palestinians with Israel's desire for "secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments on the ground," and provide Israel with security.

"Those requirements will be fully taken into account in any future peace agreement," the statement emphasized.

Prior to the meeting, Clinton expressed confidence in Netanyahu as a peacemaker, despite tensions this week between the US and Israel, and Israel and the Palestinians, over Jewish construction in east Jerusalem.

“The prime minister and [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas are both very committed to the two-state solution and we’re going to find a way forward,” Clinton said in a brief response to questions from the press as she began what proved to be a marathon session of talks with Netanyahu and advisers from both sides.

The meetings were aimed at agreeing on conditions that might enable a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian direct talks, which collapsed in September after the expiry of Netanyahu’s 10-month freeze on new construction at settlements. The US administration has repeatedly urged Netanyahu to renew the moratorium, which Abbas has demanded as a condition for returning to the talks. The administration has also strongly criticized new building plans in the Jewish east Jerusalem neighborhoods of Har Homa, Ramot and Pisgat Ze’ev.

Netanyahu, for his part, has hitherto refused to sanction a further freeze, unless the PA formally recognizes Israel as a Jewish state – something Abbas has said he will not do. And the prime minister has insisted on the right to build in what Israel regards as its sovereign capital.

The two leaders shook hands warmly as they posed for the cameras before heading into their initial, one-on-one meeting in the Regency Hotel in New York. That session lasted for over than two hours.

“We have been talking and we will talk again about how to resume and to continue the process with peace and security between us and the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said.

Following the tete-a-tete between the two principals, the Americans and Israelis broke up into teams for talks into the New York afternoon. Among those present were US special envoy George Mitchell, Israeli chief peace negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, Israeli strategist Uzi Arad and US National Security Council member Daniel Shapiro.

While no details were offered on the meetings, Israeli government officials said the talks were “very serious” and that “everything is on the table.”

The meetings lasted over seven hours.

Earlier, Netanyahu met with US House Minority Leader Eric Cantor for more than an hour.

Cantor, a Virginia Republican, is expected to become majority leader in January, which would make him the highest-ranking Jewish member in congressional history. Cantor told Netanyahu that “the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the administration” and that “the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other,” according to a statement put out by Cantor’s office.

Many in Washington interpreted Netanyahu’s bold call this week for the US to back up Iran sanctions with the threat of military action – a move that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quickly dismissed – and his insistence that “Jerusalem is not a settlement” despite criticism from the US of new moves to advance Jewish construction in the eastern part of the capital, as a sign that the prime minister feels strengthened by the Republican congressional victory and expects to be bolstered by it when dealing with the Obama administration on these issues.

While Cantor’s statement didn’t refer to the military option, he did stress the need to increase the pressure on Teheran. “It is time for the administration to fully and aggressively implement” Iran sanctions, Cantor told Netanyahu, calling for the administration to “ratchet up the pressure on the Iranian regime” lest progress on sanctions “unravel.”

Cantor also urged the White House to “make it absolutely clear that the US will veto any effort by the Palestinians” to have the UN unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.

Though the Obama administration has been less categorical about what it would do should the Palestinians approach the UN, as some in the PA have threatened, Clinton on Wednesday again expressed opposition to “unilateral steps by either party that could prejudge the outcome of such negotiations.”

On Thursday morning, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited the Golan Heights and declared the area to be an indivisible part of the State of Israel that will remain as such.

There was a strong connection between Damascus, Iran and North Korea, he noted. Syria helps Iran supply weapons to terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

He added that he supported Netanyahu’s firm statements in defense of Jewish construction in east Jerusalem. “No one can accept a situation in which we cannot build in [the neighborhoods of] Gilo and Har Homa.”

He added that Israel should not bow to pressure to impose a new moratorium on West Bank settlement construction.

“We will not accept any additional freeze – not for three months, not for a month and not for a day. Whoever wants to pressure us should pressure the other side. As far as we are concerned, a long-term interim agreement should be discussed, because a permanent agreement is impossible.”

Netanyahu was expected to fly back to Israel late on Thursday and will brief the cabinet about his visit on Sunday.

Jordana Horn also contributed to this story.