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Mitchell Urges Arab Action

By: Josef Federman, Arab News 


JERUSALEM: US President Barack Obama’s Mideast envoy on Sunday called on the Arab world to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel.

Envoy George Mitchell, opening a new round of peace efforts in the region, played down the differences with Israel “as discussions among friends.” His comments, along with those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared to be aimed at lowering recent tensions as the US tries to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and work for a broader peace between Israel and the Arab world.

Mitchell arrived in Israel from Syria, where he told his hosts the US is determined to achieve a “truly comprehensive” peace settlement that includes normal relations between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors.

“We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavor,” he said.

It was Mitchell’s second visit to the Syrian capital, reflecting US recognition that Syria would play an important role in any regional peace effort. The Bush administration isolated Syria for years because of its support for hard-line Palestinian and Lebanese groups.

Mitchell described his talks with President Bashar Assad as “very candid and positive.” Assad did not speak to reporters after the meeting, but Syria’s official news agency later quoted him as stressing to Mitchell “the Arab right to recover occupied lands through achieving a just and comprehensive peace.” Syria has demanded the return of the Golan Heights, a plateau overlooking northern Israel that Israel captured in the 1967 war.

Upon arrival in Israel, Mitchell said he has been urging Arab governments “to take meaningful steps toward normalization as gestures of their own to demonstrate that everyone in the region shares the vision of comprehensive peace.”

To help restart peace talks, the US has been pressing Israel to halt all construction in settlements built on captured land. Some 280,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, in addition to 180,000 residents living in Jewish neighborhoods built in Arab East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians seek to establish an independent state that includes the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as their capital.

Netanyahu says limited construction must proceed to accommodate “natural growth” in the settler population. Netanyahu also says East Jerusalem, which Israel captured and annexed in 1967, will always remain part of Israel’s capital city.

A growing number of Israeli officials have expressed surprise and dissatisfaction over the American pressure. At a meeting with Israel’s defense minister, Mitchell tried to soothe the concerns. “Our governments are friends and allies,” he said. “These are discussions among friends.”

He praised recent steps taken by Netanyahu to boost the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and said he would urge Palestinians on Monday to respond with their own confidence-building steps, such as taking action against anti-Israel incitement.

The Palestinians have said they will not meet with Netanyahu until he halts all settlement activity.

Mitchell is the first of four senior American envoys scheduled to visit Israel this week. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser James Jones and special envoy Dennis Ross are also expected.

Speaking to his Cabinet, Netanyahu said he hoped to work out the policy differences with the Americans. “Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t agreement on all points, and on several issues we are trying to reach an understanding, in order to make progress together toward our shared goals — peace, security and prosperity for the whole Middle East,” he said.

The US Embassy in Tel Aviv said Mitchell was making a quick trip to Egypt before returning to Israel for more talks. Embassy spokesman Kurt Hoyer said Mitchell’s trip to Cairo came at the request of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mitchell was scheduled to visit Egypt on Tuesday.

It was not immediately known why Mubarak asked Mitchell to move up his visit.

Hossam Zaki, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Mitchell is scheduled to meet with Mubarak and other officials on Monday.

Hoyer said Mitchell would return to Israel for talks with Israeli leaders the same day.