Mitchell, Netanyahu meet on peace efforts

US envoy steers clear of settlement issue in talks with PM, Netanyahu, who says he'll work for peace.

mitchell and erdogan (photo credit: )
mitchell and erdogan
(photo credit: )
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell held a series of talks Thursday in Tel Aviv with the country's top leaders, including Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu, in what Israeli officials said was a visit aimed at gathering information to try to figure out how to move the diplomatic process forward. Although there has been a great deal of speculation in recent days that Mitchell would come and place pressure on Israel to freeze all settlement growth, the issue did not come up - according to Israeli officials - in Mitchell's talks with Netanyahu or Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Israeli officials said the new US administration was still conducting a policy review on a whole gamut of issues, including the Middle East, and that Mitchell seemed to be very much in fact-finding mode, talking with a variety of different regional players, including the Palestinians, Egyptians, Saudis and Turks, to look for ideas on how best to proceed now with the diplomatic process. Netanyahu, who has known Mitchell for some 25 years but met with him Thursday for the first time as prime minister-designate, said the talks were held in a "very good" atmosphere. Netanyahu's office put out a statement after the meeting saying that "we will work together with the Obama administration to advance the peace process in the region." In a clear reference to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks currently taking place in Egypt, the statement said that putting Hamas into the process "would harm the chances for peace." In addition to meeting Mitchell on Thursday, Netanyahu also met with visiting EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. While the international community remains formally committed to not dealing with Hamas until it recognizes Israel, forswears terrorism and accepts previous agreements, there is a sense that the Europeans, more so than the Americans, are looking for a way to "fudge" the issue so that Hamas and Fatah could form a "national unity" government. The Netanyahu camp has made it clear in recent days that it is opposed to that approach. Mitchell will go to Ramallah on Friday for talks with the Palestinian Authority leadership, before heading to Egypt for Monday's meeting of donor countries for the reconstruction of Gaza. He is expected to return to Israel form Egypt on Monday, accompanying US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In addition to meeting Netanyahu and Olmert, Mitchell also met Thursday with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Israeli officials said that a primary focus of Mitchell's talks was the upcoming donors' conference in Cairo, where billions of dollars are expected to be pledged for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. Olmert, during his hour-long meeting with Mitchell, told the US envoy that regarding reconstruction of Gaza, what was important was to do it in a way that would help Gaza's residents, but not strengthen Hamas. This is a position common to Israel, the US, EU and even the Palestinian Authority, Israeli officials said, with the question that needs to be addressed at the Sharm conference being how to do just that. Olmert raised Israeli concerns about continued arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip, and said that since Operation Cast Lead people trained in Iran have entered Gaza with advanced military and munitions training. Olmert said it was important for the international community to act together and in a coordinated fashion to establish a mechanism to prevent the smuggling. Mitchell arrived Thursday from Turkey, where he met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Following that meeting, Mitchell said, "As an important democratic nation with strong relations with Israel, [Turkey] has a unique role to play and can have significant influence on our efforts to promote comprehensive peace in the Middle East." In light of the recent downturn in Israeli-Turkish ties following Erdogan's vicious criticism of Israel during Operation Cast Lead, Mitchell's remark appeared as an effort to send the message that Washington would like to see the Israeli-Turkish alliance remain strong.