Barak Ravid
February 26, 2009 - 1:00am

The special U.S. envoy tasked with jump-starting flagging peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians huddled Thursday with designated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vocal opponent of the negotiations.

The meeting was the first between Netanyahu and George Mitchell since Netanyahu was tapped to lead Israel's next government.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has dispatched Mitchell to the region for the second time in its first month, reflecting the administration's resolve to end the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Hillary Clinton is due in the area next week for her first visit since being appointed the new U.S. secretary of state.

Mitchell hopes to re-energize stalled talks, but Netanyahu wants to promote Palestinian prosperity instead of Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu also is committed to expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while Mitchell has urged a settlement freeze since 2001. The Palestinians reject Netanyahu's approach.

Afterward, Netanyahu remarked that the meeting had been good, and added that the two planned to meet again in the future.

After the meeting, held at Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, Mitchell headed to Defense Minister Ehud Barak's office to meet with several defense officials, including the minister.

Mitchell arrived in Israel on Thursday from Turkey and headed straight into a meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni before sitting down with Netanyahu.

In Ankara, he said predominantly Muslim Turkey's friendship with Israel gave it a unique opportunity to help achieve Middle East peace - a reflection of Washington's desire to see the two U.S. allies mend ties frayed during Israel's recent offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Mitchell's remarks reflect the U.S. desire to see Turkey and Israel maintain close relations despite a dispute between the two U.S. allies after Turkey accused Israel of using excessive force in an offensive against Hamas that took a heavy toll on Gaza's civilians.

"As an important democratic nation with strong relations with Israel, [Turkey] has a unique role to play and can have significant influence on our efforts to promote comprehensive peace in the Middle East," Mitchell said after meeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey has long been Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world, and has tried, along with Egypt and France, to mediate for peace in the Middle East.

In January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Erdogan reprimanded Israeli President Shimon Peres over civilian casualties during the Gaza war and walked out of a panel discussion.

This month, a senior Israeli general reportedly accused Turkey of killing Armenians in 1915, and of oppressing Kurds and occupying Cyprus. Turkey protested, and Israel's military said the general's remarks did not reflect Israel's official view.

"It is important for us now to look forward and to work together to build a secure, prosperous future for all of the people of this region," Mitchell said.

On his first trip to the region last month, Mitchell promised a vigorous push for Israel-Palestinian peace but publicly offered no glimpse into how the Obama administration planned to proceed. A U.S. official said Mitchell was not expected to make any public policy statements this time, either.

Such statements might await Clinton's visit or be put off until Netanyahu forms a government.

Despite his own hawkish leanings, Netanyahu knows the international community would like to see a moderate coalition lineup. But his efforts to woo moderate parties that would trade land for peace have not been going well.

Livni's Kadima Party and Barak's Labor Party have rejected his overtures, in part because of his opposition to peacemaking. Netanyahu's alternative is to team up with other nationalist and religious parties in a narrow alliance that could easily break apart over conflicting domestic agendas or international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians.

One of Mitchell's immediate goals in the region is to shore up a shaky, informal cease-fire that ended Israel's bruising offensive against Gaza Strip militants last month. Egyptian officials have been trying to mediate a long-term truce between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas group that rules Gaza.

Low-level violence has marred the Jan. 18 cease-fire. On Thursday, militants fired two rockets at southern Israel and Israel later sent aircraft to raid southern Gaza, targeting smuggling tunnels near the border with Egypt. No injuries were reported in the rocket attacks or the air strike.

In his talks with Israeli officials and with Palestinian leaders on Friday, Mitchell is also expected to focus on the need to rebuild Gaza after the Israeli offensive and efforts to reconcile feuding Palestinian factions.

The Palestinians hope to raise $2.8 billion at an international donor's conference in Egypt on Monday, where the U.S. is expected to pledge $900 million.

The success of reconstruction efforts will depend largely on Israel's agreement to reopen border crossings into Gaza to let through building materials and other equipment and commodities. Israel blockaded its borders with Gaza after Hamas militants overran the territory nearly two years ago, prying them open only to let in limited humanitarian supplies.

Truce talks recently deadlocked over Israel's insistence that Hamas release a long-held Israeli soldier before border crossings are opened.

A power-sharing deal between Hamas and the moderate West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also seen as key to reconstruction efforts. Many in the international community shun the violently anti-Israel Hamas and won't send money directly to it.

In a report obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad asked donors to channel aid first and foremost through his West Bank government.

Hamas and Fatah representatives have been meeting in Cairo this week for Egyptian-mediated talks. But earlier rounds of reconciliation efforts failed, and the two sides remain bitterly divided nearly two years after Hamas overran Gaza.

Mitchell, a former Senate Minority leader from Maine, had great success in brokering an agreement in Northern Ireland, and was dispatched to the Middle East in 2001 to pen a report on the outbreak of the second intifada. The document, dubbed the "Mitchell Report," included recommendations for confidence-building measures for each side. However ultimately both Israel and the Palestinians failed to implement these recommendations, and the report was subsequently shelved.

The envoy visited Israel in January, where he spoke with Olmert about the situation in Gaza.

Mitchell's first trip abroad as Obama's Middle East envoy also took him to the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France, Egypt and Britain.


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