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(photo credit: AP [file])
As George Mitchell was dispatched to the Middle East, US President Barack Obama said overnight Monday that his new envoy to the region would aim "to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress. And when I say progress, not just photo ops, but progress that is concrete."
In an interview with Al-Arabiya television, Obama said he felt it was important to "get engaged right away" in the Middle East. He said he directed Mitchell to talk to "all the major parties involved" and that his administration would craft an approach after that.
"What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating," Obama said in the interview.
Obama reiterated the US commitment to Israel as an ally, and to its right to defend itself. But he suggested that Israel has hard choices to make and that his administration would press harder for it to do so.
"We cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people," Obama said.
State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said Mitchell will be in "listening mode" and will report back to the president and to Clinton with advice on how to attempt to get the peace process back on track.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Tuesday as part of a regional trip which he said was aimed at consolidating the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, facilitating humanitarian aid to Gaza and relaunching the diplomatic process.
Solana will come to Israel from Egypt, where he was to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as well as Mitchell.
Mitchell, who is scheduled to arrive from Egypt on Wednesday, is also going to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan during his maiden regional visit in his new capacity.
In preparation for Mitchell's visit, which is expected to focus on the situation in the Gaza Strip, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met Monday with US Ambassador James Cunningham and said the Gaza operation should serve as a turning point in the region.
"The operation created a strategic change in the status of Hamas and the extremist forces, and can serve as a stimulus for the new administration and the international community to change the reality," Livni said.
Livni said that Israel made it clear that it would "not return to the status quo that prevailed prior to the IDF operation, and that we must take advantage of Hamas's weakness and work together to create opportunities that will strengthen the moderate forces in the region."
In Brussels, EU foreign ministers on Monday discussed a package of diplomatic and practical measures that European countries could take to advance Middle East diplomatic efforts. Their goals include halting arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip and promoting a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced plans to send five German border experts to help their Egyptian counterparts patrol their Gaza border more effectively.
The German experts would provide technical support for operating night-vision equipment needed to find smugglers' tunnels into Gaza.
Several EU countries also are offering naval vessels and monitors to help Egypt curb the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
Following their meeting, the EU foreign ministers issued a statement stating that with the full withdrawal of IDF troops from the Gaza Strip, "the issues which should be addressed without any delay include a sustained halt of rocket launches towards Israel, the urgent opening of the Gaza crossings on a regular and predictable basis and an effective mechanism to prevent arms and ammunition smuggling."
The statement said the EU was in close coordination with Egypt on border management issues. It also reiterated its readiness to reactivate the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM Rafah), as soon as conditions allow, and to examine the possibility of extending its assistance to other crossing points as part of the overall EU engagement in the region.
The statement said the EU "deeply deplores the loss of life during this conflict, particularly the civilian casualties," and said it will "follow closely investigations into alleged violations of international humanitarian law."
AP contributed to this report.
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