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(photo credit: AP)
Defense Minister Ehud Barak met Middle East envoy George Mitchell for the second time in a week on Monday, and promised that Israel would evacuate 23 illegal outposts in the West Bank in a matter of weeks or months, as opposed to years, Army Radio reported.
After the talks, which lasted over three hours, Barak told Reuters, "I think there is progress. There's still a way to go."
Barak said he was optimistic about the chances of "preparing the ground for launching a major peace process."
When asked about reports that Washington was urging Arab governments to agree to make gestures toward Israel if settlement activity were frozen, Barak said, "I think the Americans are active on this issue.
"While they are demanding from Israel steps and concessions in order to enable this regional peace effort to take off, they are approaching the Arabs as well and asking what they can contribute in terms of... starting normalization with Israel," he said. "We are looking and trying to find a formula (which) needs to show our readiness to be sensitive to the needs of others."
Barak characterized the discussion with Mitchell as "very good and constructive." He said they spoke about measures that would ensure "our slight differences regarding how to deal with the issue of settlements will... be clarified, but within the context of the need to push ahead the wider peace agreement."
Following the meeting Barak and Mitchell issued a joint statement saying the two men "covered all aspects of Middle East peace and security. They re-affirmed their commitment to the common objective of a regional peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon and the steps necessary to achieve it. These included measures on security and incitement by the Palestinians; steps by Arab states toward normalization with Israel; and, from Israel, actions on access and movement in the West Bank and on settlement activity."
The statement, which de-emphasized the settlement issue and put it in the context of the wider regional diplomatic process the US is trying to get off the ground, said that the discussions will continue both with Barak and with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Mitchell is expected to visit Jerusalem with the next two weeks, and hold a meeting with Netanyahu, although no date has been announced.
Barak met later with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. He said he briefed both Netanyahu and Lieberman on the content of his talks both with Mitchell and with Miliband.
In a related development, visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said before meeting President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on Monday that a "fresh" diplomatic start had been made possible "by the initiative of the US president - a decisive, fervent call for a two-state solution made not only to Israel and the Palestinians but also to the Arab neighbors."
"We must work toward having the moderate Arab states participate in this task," Steinmeier said before meeting Peres, who is scheduled to travel to Egypt on Tuesday to discuss the newest diplomatic push with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Lieberman, meanwhile, addressed another European leader, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who last month urged Netanyahu to replace him as foreign minister. Lieberman said, "People sometimes say unnecessary things, including me. I admit I also sometimes say unnecessary things. I would not get too excited."