Mitchell: Syria-Israel talks near-term goal

US envoy says Palestinians must end incitement; Barak: Israel "understands needs of partners."

Mitchell with Barak in Tel Aviv 248.88 (photo credit: Defense Ministry )
Mitchell with Barak in Tel Aviv 248.88
(photo credit: Defense Ministry )
After weeks of an uncomfortable strain in US-Israeli ties, both countries went out of their way Sunday - upon the arrival of American envoy George Mitchell - to downplay friction and stress that any disagreements were "between friends." A few hours prior to Mitchell's arrival from Syria, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - who last week reportedly said he did not know what US President Barack Obama was trying to do in opposing Israeli construction in east Jerusalem - told the cabinet that "even within the fabric of friendly relations between allies there are points over which there is not full agreement." And Mitchell, for his part, said before meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the afternoon that "these are discussions among friends" aimed at reaching a comprehensive peace that "includes Israel and Palestine, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon and normal relations with all countries in the region. That is President Obama's personal objective vision and that is what he is asking to achieve. In order to achieve that we have asked all involved to take steps." Mitchell's emphasis on a comprehensive peace, one that would include Syria and Lebanon, ran contrary to some expectations that the thrust of his efforts during this visit would be to reach an agreement on settlement construction to get the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations off the ground. In Syria, after meeting with President Bashar Assad, Mitchell said that renewing Israeli-Syrian talks was a "near-term" goal. "If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace. We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavor," he said. "I told President Assad that President Obama is determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace," Mitchell told reporters. Netanyahu, in a conference call last week with US Jewish organizational leaders, said Israel wanted to see some positive steps from Syria, although they were not a precondition to talks with Damascus. "We seek peace with all our neighbors, and are ready for a resumption of talks with Syria with no preconditions, not Israeli or Syrian preconditions," Netanyahu said. At the same time, he added that Israel "had serious doubts as to whether Syria is really committed to making peace with Israel, because it had forged a close alliance with Iran, it continues to arm Hizbullah, and continues to undermine Lebanon's independence. And Damascus, the capital of Syria, continues to serve as a center for Palestinian terror groups. "So I think that if Syria wanted to signal its approach to peace, it could obviously take tangible steps to show a different direction." Following his meeting with Barak, Mitchell flew unexpectedly to Cairo, and was expected to return Monday for talks with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, as well as with President Shimon Peres. He is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Tuesday. Mitchell was not originally planned to go to Egypt until Tuesday. On Monday, Netanyahu will meet with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the second of a parade of senior Obama administration officials visiting this week. US National Security Adviser Jim Jones will arrive Wednesday with a large contingent of his staff, including Middle East adviser Dennis Ross. Before meeting with Barak, Mitchell said he was asking all the countries involved to take steps to move the diplomatic process forward. Barak, in recent meetings with Mitchell, had stressed that the US could not expect Israel to take measures such as a settlement freeze without the Arab states taking steps of their own toward Israel to further the diplomatic process. "I participated in meetings with several Arab leaders, in which we are urging them to take meaningful steps towards normalization as justice of their own statements that everyone in the region shares the vision of comprehensive peace that we share," Mitchell told Barak before their meeting. "I'll be going to Ramallah to meet with the Palestinian leaders, where I'm asking them to take steps to expand and improve their security, to take actions against incitement, and to refrain from any words or deeds that makes the prospect of successful negotiations more difficult," he said. Mitchell made sure to give Netanyahu credit for easing access and movement in the West Bank, and stressed that the US "commitment to Israel's security is unshakable and will not change." Barak told Mitchell that while it was necessary for Israel to keep its vital interests in mind, "we understand the needs of the other partners as well."