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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
While outwardly, US envoy George Mitchell tried to downplay tensions between Washington and Jerusalem, the settlement construction issue continued to be a central source of contention when Mitchell met with Israel's leaders on Tuesday.
Mitchell, during a day of meetings that included four hours with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was told that Israel would not bring all settlement construction to a complete halt, even though this continues to be the US's stated position.
One senior official said that there appeared to be some "convergence" between the sides, and they were moving toward a definition of the issues.
Following the evening meeting with Mitchell, which included a two-hour, one-on-one conversation, Netanyahu's office issued a statement that the meeting was "friendly and positive and encompassed the whole range of issues on the agenda."
Netanyahu, according to the statement, said that "Israel is working to promote peace and security with our Palestinian neighbors and the wider Arab world."
In front of the cameras, Mitchell took pains to stress the importance of the US-Israeli relationship, and Washington's commitment to Israel's security.
Mitchell, after a meeting earlier in the day with President Shimon Peres, said he wanted to state again "clearly and emphatically, beyond any doubt, that the United States' commitment to the security of Israel remains unshakable."
He stressed that the current disagreements "are not disagreements among adversaries. The United States and Israel are and will remain close allies and friends. My meetings today with the president and other Israeli officials are discussions among friends who share a common set of objectives: Peace, security and prosperity to all the people of this region."
Mitchell said the objective of the Obama administration was a "comprehensive peace in the Middle East," including "a Palestinian state side by side in peace and security with the Jewish State of Israel. The president and the secretary of state have made our policy clear. Israelis and Palestinians have a responsibility to meet their obligations under the road map. It's not just their responsibility. We believe it's in their security interest as well."
Giving voice to the Obama administration's focus on the regional element of the diplomatic process, Mitchell said the US was engaged in "serious discussions" with Israel, the Palestinians and regional partners in the hopes of creating the conditions "for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations."
In an apparent indication of the regional context to the diplomatic process Obama wants to launch, the State Department announced that Mitchell - who will hold meetings with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah on Wednesday - was scheduled to go to Lebanon on Thursday and to Damascus on Friday and Saturday. It will be Mitchell's first visit to Syria since he was appointed envoy in January, though two senior administration officials - Jeffrey Feltman and Dan Shapiro - have visited Damascus twice.
One Israeli official said that while the thrust of the Shapiro and Feltman visits had focused on bilateral Syrian-US ties, Mitchell - in light of his position - was expected to concentrate on the Israeli-Syrian track.
In advance of Mitchell's trip, Syrian President Bashar Assad has expressed renewed interest in restarting preliminary contacts with Israel through Turkey.
"President Bashar Assad told his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul once again when he visited Syria (last month) of Damascus's firm and continuing support for Ankara's mediation efforts and its confidence in their impartiality," Syria's ambassador to Turkey, Nidal Kabalan, told AFP.
Assad also told Gul he had sent a similar message to European envoys, Kabalan said, adding: "It is now up to them [the Israelis]."
Though many expect the US to seize the results and push more aggressively for peace between Israel and Syria, with the Mitchell trip a sign of that effort, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon argued Tuesday that conditions were not ripe for a deal with Syria.
He said that previous negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus took place in the 1990s under a different leader - current Syrian President Bashar Assad's father Hafez - and were conducted with the understanding that a peace with Israel would mean Syria broke its relations with Iran and stopped supporting Hizbullah.
"His son's behaving in a very different way," he told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, describing Israeli officials as suspicious of his overtures.
Regarding Mitchell's trip to Lebanon, Israeli officials said this had more to do with Lebanon's recent elections, and a US desire to send a message of support to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, than any efforts to start an as-yet nonexistent Lebanese-Israeli track.
The officials also said it would be unlikely for Israel to make any concessions toward the Lebanese regarding the Shaba Farms area or the village of Ghajar until it became clear whether or not Hizbullah would be part of the upcoming government. If Hizbullah were in the government, any gestures regarding the Shaba Farms or Ghajar would be unlikely, the sources noted.
One issue that has been discussed extensively in Jerusalem is the possibility of pulling out of the northern part of Ghajar, which straddles the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, Peres, whom Mitchell met in the morning, said there were four important points that needed to be emphasized on the road to peace: "a two-state solution based on the road map, the clear maintenance of Israel's security, independence for the Palestinians, and implementation of a comprehensive regional peace between Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East."
Diplomatic sources, who said it was likely that Peres was foreshadowing Netanyahu's address on Sunday at Bar-Ilan University, said that while it was likely that Netanyahu would nod toward the notion of a Palestinian state in his speech, he was unlikely to say "two states for two peoples," because this was a slogan that had become too closely identified with opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
Likewise, the sources said Netanyahu was expected to stay clear of the term "natural growth" in relation to construction in the settlements in his speech, because this had become a term now associated with conflict with the US.
Peres, however, did use the term after meeting Mitchell, saying, "There is agreement in Israel regarding the evacuation of illegal outposts and not to build new settlements. However, the issue of natural growth in the settlement blocs must continue to be discussed intensively in order to reach agreement. In my experience, focusing on a single issue ill serves the wider diplomatic process, which is supposed to set the agenda for Israel and its neighbors."
In addition to meeting Netanyahu and Peres, Mitchell also met during the day with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, where - in addition to discussing the settlements - the meetings also dealt with Iran and the elections in Lebanon.
In a related development, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem on Wednesday on the first leg of a five-day regional tour that will also take him to the PA, Lebanon and Egypt.
Meanwhile, in what was intended to be a major policy address at the Council for Peace and Security in Ramat Gan, Barak praised Obama as "assertive, self-confident and hugely popular" and said Israel should cooperate with him in the pursuit of an all-inclusive regional accord.
Barak called Obama's efforts to bring an an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict "an exceptional opportunity," and said it would be right for Israel to adequately consider its path and properly navigate inside this series of challenges and opportunities."
"It would not be right for Israel to get in the way of American efforts to form a Palestinian state according to the vision of two states for two peoples," Barak said. "There is no guarantee that the attempt to establish two states would succeed, because it is not dependent only on Israel. But our government must fulfill the obligations of previous ones. Preventing negotiations on a Palestinian state could lead to there being one state for two peoples."
Barak stressed that Israel and the US were allowed to disagree, but he expressed hope that if Israel worked correctly, it could become fully coordinated with Obama's government on diplomatic issues.
Gil Hoffman and Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.
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