Mark Lander
International Herald Tribune
January 22, 2009 - 1:00am

President Barack Obama moved swiftly to engage on the Middle East, calling Israeli and Arab leaders on his first morning in office and preparing to appoint a seasoned peace negotiator and former senator, George Mitchell, as his special emissary to the region.

Obama did not announce any new initiatives Wednesday, although he promised deeper U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than was evident during the Bush administration, which steered clear of the peace process in its early days.

In calls to leaders in Egypt, Jordan and Israel and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Obama said he would work to solidify the cease-fire in Gaza and pledged "his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term," said his spokesman, Robert Gibbs.

The U.S. effort will include help for Israel in stemming the smuggling of arms to Hamas militants, as well as aid for the Palestinian Authority in rebuilding Gaza, Obama said.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate confirmed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, by a vote of 94 to 2, a day later than scheduled because of lingering objections by some Republicans. Senators David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, and Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, voted against her.

Mitchell's appointment, which could be announced as soon as Thursday, underscores the central role that the Middle East has assumed in the Obama administration.

A former Senate majority leader who helped broker a peace deal in Northern Ireland, Mitchell, 75, also led a commission searching for ways to stop violence between Israelis and Palestinians. He is viewed as a diplomatic heavyweight who may bring more balance to Washington's relationships in the region.

"He's neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and an adviser to the Clinton administration.

The prospects for the Obama administration to achieve a breakthrough in the Middle East anytime soon are remote, experts said. Further muddying the outlook, Israel is scheduled to hold elections Feb. 10.

For now, some experts said, the best the White House can do is support steps to rebuild confidence on both sides.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017