Ilene Prusher
The Christian Science Monitor
July 26, 2009 - 12:00am

The Obama administration embarked on a multipronged Middle East peace drive on Sunday, with four senior US officials coming here to push for progress on some of the region's thorniest issues.

In the course of what promises to be an intense week of diplomatic activity, Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian, and Egyptian leaders are meeting with Middle East special envoy George Mitchell. Three other heavy-hitters will also be in town: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, special adviser Dennis Ross, and National Security Adviser James Jones.

The week is expected to focus in part on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – including a US goal of getting Israel to agree to at least a temporary freeze in settlement building. But it will also target other issues: the possibility of relaunching talks between Israel and Syria and discussions over Iran's nuclear program.

Ambassador Mitchell arrived in Israel on Sunday after a visit to Damascus, during which he told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that peace between Israel and Syria was a "near-term goal."

"If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace. We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavor," Mitchell said.

During his trip from Damascus to Tel Aviv, Mitchell told reporters he has been urging Arab leaders "to take steps toward normalization as gestures of their own to demonstrate that everyone in the region shares the vision of comprehensive peace that we share."

Israel has suggested that Arab states make moves toward "normalization," a buzzword that has come to indicate trade and cultural relations that are short of full diplomatic ties, as a gesture that would help cushion the domestic impact of Israel declaring a settlement freeze.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that he could be willing to agree to such a halt in the West Bank, where some 280,000 settlers live, but not in East Jerusalem - the subject of much controversy in recent days.

The US has indicated it wants a total freeze on settlements, forgoing any allowances for expansion due to natural growth. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is asking that the US recognize various projects that are under way, arguing that they are almost impossible to halt.

Mitchell met with Mr. Barak on Sunday, and is to fly to Egypt for talks with President Hosni Mubarak before returning to Israel for additional talks. Mitchell meets Mr. Netanyahu on Tuesday, and then heads to Ramallah to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Defense Secretary Gates will be meeting on Monday with various Israeli leaders to focus on the issue of Iran's nuclear program.

The Israeli press on Sunday was replete with conjecture about the core goals of Gates's trip. Some speculated that it was intended as a signal to the Iranians that the "window of opportunity" for dialogue with the US is closing, while others reported that Gates was coming to town to impress upon Israel that it should not pursue a plan to knock out Iran's nuclear facilities.


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