Gulf News
February 4, 2009 - 1:00am

The special US envoy for Middle East peace, George Mitchell, has asked to open his own office in the region to deal with day-to-day developments between Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring states, signaling a desire for greater American hands-on involvement in negotiations.

Mitchell, who just returned from the region on Monday and plans to go back this month after Israel's Feb. 10 elections, has proposed placing a small staff in Jerusalem to monitor the situation on the ground, officials briefed on his recommendation said.

Action on Mitchell's request by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected soon, possibly this week, the officials said. Obama, Clinton and Mitchell are expected to meet at the White House on Wednesday to plot a way forward, they said.

Setting up a dedicated office for special envoys in their region of responsibility is not unprecedented, but it is a clear shift from the Bush administration. Bush did not have a special Middle East envoy and relied on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to handle regional diplomacy.

It was not immediately clear if Mitchell wants his satellite office to be located at the US Consulate in Jerusalem or elsewhere in the city, but the officials said the envoy wants his in-country staff to work with American diplomats already based there. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Mitchell's request is not public.

Mitchell, however, hinted at such a step after briefing Clinton on his trip at State Department on Tuesday.

"I plan to establish a regular and sustained presence in the region," he told reporters.

"There are no easy or risk free courses of action, but I am convinced ... that with patience and determined and persevering diplomacy we can help to make a difference and we can assist those in the region achieve the peace and stability that people on all sides long for," he said.

Clinton, standing beside Mitchell, said the envoy's early travel to the region and plans to return before the end of the month were signs of US commitment to the peace process.

"This is the first of what will be an ongoing, high level of engagement," she said of Mitchell's trip. "We want to send a clear message ... that the United States is committed to this path and we are going to work as hard as we can over what period of time is required to try to help the parties make progress together."

Mitchell, a former senator and veteran negotiator who brokered the Northern Ireland peace accord and wrote a 2001 report on the resurgence of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, was dispatched to the region last week in the Obama administration's first overseas diplomatic venture.

On a "listening tour" that took him to Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Saudi Arabia he was exploring ways of securing a lasting cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, improving humanitarian conditions in the territory.

He was also looking at ways to boost peace talks between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' moderate West Bank-based administration.


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