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(photo credit: Flash 90)
Palestinian recognition that Israel is a Jewish state is a fundamental element for any talks between the two parties, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told visiting US envoy George Mitchell on Thursday evening.
The two-hour meeting in Jerusalem was Netanyahu's first long face-to-face conversation as prime minister with a top-level Obama administration official.
It took place amid media reports of growing tensions between Israel and the US over the best path for peace with the Palestinians. But sources close to Netanyahu were quick to dismiss these reports, describing the meeting as a very positive one in which both Israel and the US promised to cooperate fully on regional matters.
Mitchell invited Netanyahu to visit Washington on May 11, but that proved problematic for scheduling reasons, the sources said.
"We are searching for another date," said the source, who stressed that the issue was technical and did not reflect a problem in the relationship.
The source added that the invitation showed that the friendship between the countries remained strong.
During the conversation, Netanyahu assured Mitchell that Israel wanted to move forward to create a sustainable peace with the Palestinians, but that this peace had to take into account Israel's vital security interests.
Netanyahu stressed that it was important to learn from past mistakes and that no one wanted to see a situation where Israel ceded more territory only to have it taken over by extremist elements, the source said.
"No one wants to see a Hamastan in the West Bank," the source said.
Looking beyond the Palestinians, Netanyahu said that countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia should be part of the peace process.
He said he thought it was possible because today, these regional actors understood the dangers posed by Iran and its extremist proxies, the source said.
The two men also discussed Iran and Syria, but the source did not elaborate on those conversations.
Mitchell's first meeting with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which took place earlier in the day, dealt more with the past than the future, government sources said.
The sources said that the gist of what Lieberman and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Mitchell was that the diplomatic efforts that had been tried since 1993 had failed, and it was now time to try something new.
What was missing from the conversation, the sources said, was a detailed plan of where the current government was going, something that was still under "policy review."
The sources pointed out the implied criticism of US Middle East policy in Lieberman's saying that the diplomatic efforts had failed, because the US had been very much involved in those efforts.
Mitchell, according to the sources, spoke in generalities about a two-state solution, but did not go into details.
Lieberman's office issued a statement after the meeting saying that he had reviewed the diplomatic process since the 1993 Oslo Accords, stressing that the "traditional approach" had so far brought neither results nor solutions.
Lieberman said that six former prime ministers had been prepared to make far-reaching concessions, but that the policies of the Olmert-Livni government in this regard had resulted in the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead.
Furthermore, he said, Qatar and Mauritania had cut off ties with Israel, IDF soldier Gilad Schalit continued to sit in captivity, and the diplomatic process had reached a dead end.
The foreign minister said the Israeli government would have to formulate new ideas and a new approach.
"We anticipate close cooperation and coordination with the US administration," he said.
Lieberman stressed that Israel expected absolute support from the international community on the issue of security, as well as its unequivocal commitment to the concept of Israel as a Jewish state.
Lieberman also raised the issue of the Iranian threat as a central problem for Israel and the entire region, as demonstrated by the arrest of terrorists in Egypt last week.
"Iran with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles; Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip; and Hizbullah in Lebanon - those are the real problems. If we're looking for a stable solution to the Palestinian problem, we must first stop the intensification and expansion of the Iranian threat," Lieberman said.
Following the meeting, Mitchell said the conversation was "good, full and candid."
"I reiterated to the foreign minister that US policy favors - with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a two-state solution, which would have a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the Jewish State of Israel, and that we would look forward also to efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace throughout the region," he said.
Israeli diplomatic officials said Mitchell's emphasis on Israel as a Jewish state was significant, saying it was code for the US backing Israel's position that in any future two-state solution, Palestinian refugees from 1948 would be allowed to return to the new Palestinian state, but not to Israel.
Following his meeting with Lieberman, Mitchell met with opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who was foreign minister when he last met with her in March.
Livni, according to her office, told Mitchell at the outset of their meting that there was no division inside Israel regarding the need to provide a comprehensive security for Israel, or for the Palestinians to fulfill their part of the road map before the establishment of a Palestinian state.
But, she said, there were differences regarding the country's basic interests. She said she did not believe time was working in Israel's favor, and that a stalemate in the diplomatic process would weaken those interested in a diplomatic solution.
In addition to the diplomatic process, Livni discussed the Iranian situation with Mitchell.
She said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not the basis for the regional conflict with Iran, and that Iran was using it as an excuse to further its goals. She said solving the Iranian problem would help bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Mitchell began his day of meetings with President Shimon Peres, telling him, according to Peres's office, that "the opening point of American foreign policy is an absolute and strong commitment to the security of the State of Israel and its people. We are committed to two states for two peoples living alongside each other in security and peace, and we shall act accordingly."
Peres told Mitchell that despite general pessimism in the region, "there is an opening point for promoting the political process. No door to peace has been closed, and I believe that this year is a decisive year in the Middle East. We do not have time to waste."
Peres's office said the two had discussed the Arab Peace Initiative at length, with Peres saying that "the positive attitude toward the Arab initiative results from the fact that I am convinced that many Arab countries do not want Iran to take over the Middle East and Hamas to take over the Palestinian Authority."
They also discussed economic cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians parallel to the conducting of political negotiations.
Regarding Iran, Peres backed away from remarks he made Sunday about the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran if need be, saying, "Wide international cooperation must be created on the Iranian issue, but at the same time, all the remarks about a possible attack on Iran by Israel are not correct. The solution with Iran is not military."
On Sunday, in an interview with Radio Kol Hai, he issued a rare hint at the possibility of a military operation against Iran, saying he hoped US President Barack Obama's call for dialogue with Iran would be heeded, but warned that if such talks didn't soften the Iranian president's approach, "we'll strike him."
In a related development, Lieberman also met Thursday with visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos - the first European leader to meet him - and laid out for him the three principles he thought needed to guide Israel's foreign policy under the Netanyahu government:
Israeli security, and a cessation of rocket attacks and arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip;
Stopping the Iranian nuclear program;
Improving the economic situation in the Palestinian areas.
Lieberman expressed appreciation to Moratinos for Spain's participation in the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.
Lieberman's thanks came amid concern in Israel that some of the European countries participating in the UNIFIL force want to withdraw their soldiers. The bulk of the contingent is made up of French, Italian and Spanish forces.