Mitchell smiles 248.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The regional agreement that the Obama administration is trying to push forward is not only about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but also peace between Israel and both Syria and Lebanon, US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell said on Wednesday, on the eve of trips to both Beirut and Damascus.
Mitchell's comments came at the outset of a meeting with opposition head Tzipi Livni that concluded two days of meetings in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
After meeting with Livni, Mitchell flew to Cairo. From there he will go to Lebanon on Thursday, and then continue on to Damascus Friday and Saturday for his first meetings there since taking up his position in January.
One senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said Mitchell's trip to Lebanon and Syria was indicative of his overall approach - to talk to everyone and then "try to move the ball down the field one yard at a time."
While the State Department's Jeffrey Feltman and the US National Security Council's Dan Shapiro have traveled to Syria twice since US President Barack Obama was sworn into office in January, this will be Mitchell's first visit to Damascus and - according to diplomatic sources - indicates an interest in involving Syria in the new US-propelled process.
In addition, it is expected that while in Damascus Mitchell will try to gauge the attitudes of Hamas - which is headquartered in the Syrian capital - toward the recent regional developments. Diplomatic officials made clear that any meeting between Mitchell and Hamas representatives in the city was "out of the question."
In advance of Mitchell's visit, Syrian President Bashar Assad sent out signals that he was interested in renewing negotiations with Israel through the Turks. Likewise, Hamas head Khaled Mashaal sent out somewhat softer signals, saying on Tuesday that Hamas would "be a positive force in helping to find a fair solution to the Palestinian people and enabling them to fulfill their rights."
Despite Mitchell's visit, the Syrian track is not expected to play a prominent place in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's anxiously awaited speech on Sunday at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
Sources in Jerusalem said Netanyahu was expected to endorse the road map and give a nod toward a Palestinian state, while making clear that it would have to be a demilitarized state without the ability to threaten Israel.
The sources said that on the two-state issue, Netanyahu's theme would be "yes, but," and that he would use the speech at the BESA Center to add elements to the overall narrative of the conflict that Jerusalem thought had been missing from Obama's speech in Cairo.
One source said Israel was surprised that Obama, delivering his speech in Cairo, had not mentioned the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and that Netanyahu's selection of the BESA Center to deliver his own address was designed to underline that peace agreement, which took on an irreversible momentum after Anwar Sadat flew to Israel and addressed the Knesset in 1977.
Following Netanyahu's speech on Sunday, Israel is expected to embark on a diplomatic full-court press to push forward his diplomatic program. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is scheduled to go to Brussels next week for the annual meting of the Israel-EU Association meeting, where he is expected to face difficult questioning from the EU foreign ministers, and also to try to promote the diplomatic program Netanyahu is expected to articulate on Sunday night.
From Brussels, Lieberman will go to Washington for his first visit there as foreign minister. The following week Netanyahu will make his first trip to Europe since he became prime minister, where he will attend three days of meetings in Italy and France.