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New US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is expected to arrive in Israel as soon as Tuesday evening to begin a regional tour that Israeli officials say will, at least in Jerusalem, primarily be a fact-finding mission.
The stock-taking nature of the visit, one senior diplomatic official said, is dictated by the fact that the elections are only some two weeks away, and Mitchell will be meeting each of the leading candidates for prime minister.
The importance of a meeting with Mitchell to each of the candidates was underscored by Defense Minister Ehud Barak's decision to postpone by 24-hours a quick trip to the US so he could meet with the new envoy.
One senor diplomatic official said that Barack Obama dispatched Mitchell to the region even before the Israeli elections to underscore that the new president intends to get personally involved with the Middle East from the beginning of his tenure and take a very hands-on approach.
"That is the only way to explain why he would send him here now, when he doesn't know if the person he is meeting as foreign minister and defense minister will be in those jobs a month from now," the official added.
The official said that despite conventional wisdom which held that Obama would not wade into the Palestinian-Israeli issue at the outset, preferring to deal first with the US economic crises, Iraq and Iran, this issue is actually preferable to begin with due to the broad agreement among US allies that its solution is the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"There is agreement about this in key capitals around the world," the official said. "Something that cannot be said, for instance, about how to deal with Iran. If Obama takes on this issue right away he will not get into any confrontation with US allies."
In addition to meeting Barak, Mitchell is expected to meet with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu.
In addition to meeting with the country's top politicians, Mitchell is also expected to meet with senior officials from the Israel's top national security bureaucracy for briefings.
Mitchell is also expected to hold meetings in Ramallah with the Palestinian Authority leadership, and travel to Jordan, Egypt and possibly Saudi Arabia as well.
Barak, meanwhile, will depart after meeting Mitchell for a lightning visit on Wednesday to Washington for talks with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Officials said that Barak's talks - just two weeks before the elections - will focus on the Iranian nuclear threat as well as an Israeli request to refill stockpiles of munitions - such as JDAM smart bombs - that were used throughout Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Barak will meet with Gates, the only member of the Bush administration to stay on in Obama's cabinet, as well as other senior administration officials. It was unclear Sunday night if Barak would meet with newly-installed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Officials in the Defense Ministry admitted that the visit had "political benefits" for Barak and could not be disconnected from February 10 elections. One official conceded that it "looked good" for Barak that even though only a week has passed since Obama's inauguration, he was already invited to the Pentagon for talks with Gates.
Officials in Barak's office downplayed the political claims and said the visit had been scheduled before the Gaza operation.
"It is important to maintain continuity with the new administration," one official said. "There were certain understandings reached with Gates under the Bush administration and we need to ensure that they will be held by under the new administration as well."
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