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(photo credit: GPO)
Consolidating the Gaza cease-fire is "of critical importance," and should be based on preventing weapons smuggling to Hamas and the opening of the border crossings, the US Middle East envoy said on Wednesday.
George Mitchell made his comments after meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. He is expected to meet with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak later in the evening.
Earlier in the day, Mitchell made a similar statement to reporters in Cairo during his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, saying that the cease-fire was "critical."
"The United States is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region," he said following those talks.
After his meeting in Egypt, the Mideast envoy traveled to Jerusalem, where he first met with President Shimon Peres, and then Olmert.
Thursday morning he is scheduled to meet with Israel's top security officials, and then go to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.
On Friday morning he is expected to meet Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu before leaving for Amman.
Mitchell's visit comes just eight days after the inauguration of US President Barack Obama, who defined envoy's trip as a "listening" mission.
"I think the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away," Obama said Monday in an Al-Arabiya TV interview, adding that "what I told him is, start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating - in the past on some of these issues - and we don't always know all the factors that are involved. So let's listen. He's going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response."
In another sign that the Obama administration is tackling the Middle East situation head on, the US is planning to take part in an international conference in Copenhagen next week that will bring together intelligence, defense and diplomatic officials from Europe, the US and Israel to discuss ways to choke off the arms supply to the Gaza Strip.
Two top Foreign Ministry officials, Yossi Gal and Rafi Barak, were dispatched by Foreign Ministry Director-General Aaron Abramovich to European capitals earlier this week to prepare for the conference.
The conference follows a memorandum of understanding signed between Israel and the US to fight arms smuggling, as well as offers by a number of European countries to provide naval assistance to interdict the arms at sea, and to provide technical and logistical help to the Egyptians to stop smuggling under the Egyptian-Gaza border.
One senior diplomatic official said that Israel welcomed the conference, and that anything that could be done to halt the arms supply to Hamas should be welcomed.
Since Mitchell will be meeting each of the three major candidates in the upcoming election, he is not expected to hear just one Israeli approach to the diplomatic process, but to hear the position of each candidate. There is, however, expected to be agreement between the three on the regional threats: Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas.
Mitchell's itinerary after Jordan has not yet been confirmed, but there are reports that he will be going to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, stops that would underscore Obama's message that his goal is to address the regional problem and not "only" the Israeli-Palestinian dimension. He is also expected to stop in Paris and London on the way home.
Mitchell is not expected to go to Syria yet, although the Obama administration is expected to engage Syria in the near future, just as Obama said his administration would engage Iran.
Obama discussed this "holistic" approach in his Al-Arabiya interview, saying, "I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what's happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan. These things are interrelated."
Obama also sought to set realistic goals in his interview, saying, "I want to make sure that expectations are not raised so that we think that this is going to be resolved in a few months. But if we start the steady progress on these issues, I'm absolutely confident that the United States - working in tandem with the European Union, with Russia, with all the Arab states in the region - I'm absolutely certain that we can make significant progress."
Obama said in his interview that Israel was a "strong ally of the United States" and that he "will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side."
While some have questioned why Obama is sending Mitchell just two weeks prior to the February 10 elections, the US president answered that himself, saying that "sending George Mitchell to the Middle East is fulfilling my campaign promise that we're not going to wait until the end of my administration to deal with Palestinian and Israeli peace, we're going to start now."
There is little expectation in Jerusalem, however, that Mitchell will return until after a new government is set up.
In a related development, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana arrived in Israel Tuesday evening and met with Livni as part of the EU's efforts to consolidate the Gaza cease-fire, assist the Egyptians in combating arms smuggling, and open the Gaza border crossings.