The United States on Wednesday urged Israel and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and resume, in earnest, long-dormant efforts to hammer out a comprehensive peace deal.

“As we turn the calendar to 2013… now is the time for leaders on both sides to display real leadership, to focus on the work that’s necessary to return to direct negotiations,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in remarks cited by AFP.

The US was asking both sides “to clearly demonstrate that they are serious about achieving two states living side by side in peace and security,” she said.

Nuland also called for an end to “counter-productive unilateral actions,” an apparent reference to the Palestinians’ successful bid in November to upgrade their status at the United Nations to nonmember observer state, and Israel’s subsequent punitive approval of thousands of housing units in East Jerusalem and in E1, a bitterly contested tract on the outskirts of the capital.

US State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland (photo credit: State Department photo/Public Domain)

US State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland (photo credit: State Department photo/Public Domain)

As President Barack Obama starting his second term in office, and with the Israeli elections less than three weeks away, Nuland said, both sides were entering a critical period.

“We have an environment that was quite fraught and quite difficult at the end of 2012, so the question is whether we can make a fresh start in 2013, and that’s going to require restraint on all sides,” she said. “We want 2013 to be a better year — we really do.”

Israel and the Palestinians have not held direct, high-level talks since September 2010, at the tail end of a 10-month Israeli settlement freeze. Israel says it wants negotiations without preconditions, but the Palestinians have demanded that settlement construction stop before they engage in talks, which they say should pick up where they left off with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.