Vita Bekker
The National
July 27, 2009 - 12:00am

George Mitchell, the top US envoy to the Middle East, landed in Israel yesterday as part of a regional tour this week that includes meeting senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to reach a compromise on the disputed issue of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

Mr Mitchell’s trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank comes after his visit to Damascus, where he stated that the US wants Syria’s help in reaching a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Following a meeting yesterday with Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, Mr Mitchell also said renewing talks between Israel and Syria was a “near-term” goal for Washington, and added: “I told President Assad that President [Barack] Obama is determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. That peace means between Palestinians and Israelis, between Syria and Israel and between Lebanon and Israel. And of course, ultimately, the full normalisation of relations between Israel and all of the countries in the region.”

Mr Mitchell is the first in a parade of high-profile US officials arriving in Israel this week in what appears to be a co-ordinated effort by Washington to ease growing tensions with its ally on the settlements issue and on the approach to Iran’s nuclear programme. While Israel has threatened to carry out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Obama administration wants more time to see if its offer of engagement to Tehran bears fruit.

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, arrives today to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister.

James Jones, the US national security adviser, and Dennis Ross, a senior Middle East adviser to the Obama administration, will land in Israel this week.

The flurry of visits come as Israel’s diplomatic dispute with the US, its staunchest ally, over settlements appears to have sharpened amid Mr Netanyahu’s rejection of the repeated call by the Obama administration to cease all building in the West Bank and in occupied east Jerusalem, an area the Palestinians view as their future capital.

In his meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah, Mr Mitchell is expected to pursue the US demand for Israel to freeze settlement expansion.

After meeting Mr Barak yesterday in Tel Aviv, the US emissary described the disagreement with Israel as “discussions among friends” and “not disputes among adversaries”. He did not provide details on any possible progress in the talks.

Mr Mitchell is due to convene in Ramallah today with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority. Palestinian leaders have urged the US to apply more pressure on Israel to stop its building in the territory Palestinians want to become part of their future state.

The Israeli premier yesterday appeared to play down the tensions with the US. In remarks before his weekly cabinet meeting started, Mr Netanyahu said: “It is only natural, that within a fabric of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t full agreement on all points.”

The two allies are indeed trying to overcome their differences. Mr Mitchell has made repeated trips to Israel since being appointed to his post earlier this year and has also met Mr Barak in the US and in Europe in a bid to reach a compromise on the settlements.

According to a report yesterday in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, the two allies may be close to an agreement. The newspaper said, without citing its sources, that Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, last week told European Union foreign ministers that Israel may soon agree to temporarily freeze most of its construction activity in the West Bank, except for some projects that are already underway.

The report added that Mr Barak has handed the Obama administration a list of 2,500 housing units whose building has already started and may continue under the compromise that is being worked out.

However, any compromise would still face strong opposition from settler groups, who are strongly supported by the ultranationalist and religious parties that make up most of Mr Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Israeli media reported yesterday that the Right is planning to carry out a massive campaign this week in protest of plans by the government to dismantle outposts in the West Bank that have been erected without state approval. As part of the campaign that has been planned for the past three months, hundreds of settler youth are expected to establish 11 new outposts across the West Bank this week, in a show of defiance that appears timed to take place during the visit of Mr Mitchell and the other senior US officials.


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