Mitchell, Netanyahu Huddle on Peace Efforts

Thursday, 26 Feb 2009 09:41 AM

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JERUSALEM — The special U.S. envoy tasked with re-energizing stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians met Thursday with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, a vocal opponent of the negotiations.

The meeting was the first between Netanyahu and George Mitchell since Netanyahu was designated to lead Israel's next government.

The Obama administration has dispatched Mitchell to the region for the second time in its first month, an indication of the new U.S. president's determination to press a resolution of the decades-old conflict. Hillary Rodham Clinton is due in the area next week on her first trip since being appointed the new U.S. secretary of state.

Netanyahu thinks the latest round of U.S.-backed peace negotiations was a waste of time and wants to promote Palestinian prosperity instead of Palestinian statehood.

The Palestinians reject Netanyahu's approach and want Israel to halt West Bank settlement construction. On that point, the Palestinians are in accord with Mitchell, who, as head of an international commission to investigate Middle East violence, urged Israel back in 2001 to freeze settlement expansion. He also called on Palestinians to rein in militants.

Netanyahu is an outspoken champion of expanding the settlements, where nearly 290,000 Jews live, up about 50 percent since 2001.

Mitchell arrived in Israel on Thursday from Turkey and met with moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni before his scheduled meeting with Netanyahu.

In Ankara, Mitchell said predominantly Muslim Turkey's friendship with Israel gave it a unique opportunity to help achieve Middle East peace _ a reflection of Washington's desire to see the two U.S. allies mend ties frayed during Israel's recent offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Mitchell promised on his first trip last month a vigorous push for peace but publicly offered no glimpse of how the Obama administration planned to proceed. A U.S. official said he was not expected to make any public policy statements this time, either. Such statements might await Clinton's visit or be put off until Netanyahu forms his government.

Despite his hawkish leanings, Netanyahu knows the international community would like to see a moderate coalition in Israel. But his efforts to woo moderate parties that would trade land for peace have not been going well.

Livni's Kadima Party and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Labor Party have rejected his overtures, in part because of his opposition to peacemaking. Netanyahu's alternative is to team up with other nationalist and religious parties in a narrow alliance that could easily break apart over conflicting domestic agendas or international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu is familiar with such volatility: His first government, which had dismal relations with the Palestinians, fell apart a decade ago after the U.S. coerced him to cede control of large parts of the biblical West Bank town of Hebron to Palestinian control.

One of Mitchell's immediate goals in the region is to shore up a shaky, informal cease-fire that ended Israel's bruising offensive against Gaza Strip militants last month. Egyptian officials have been trying to mediate a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, which rules Gaza.

Low-level violence has marred the Jan. 18 cease-fire. On Thursday, militants fired two rockets at southern Israel and Israel later sent aircraft to raid southern Gaza. Hamas said the aircraft targeted smuggling tunnels. No injuries were reported in the rocket attacks or the air strike.

Mitchell heads to the West Bank on Friday to meet with officials of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. Besides discussing the political developments in Israel, the two sides will also discuss the need to rebuild Gaza and efforts to reconcile feuding Palestinian factions.

The Palestinians hope to raise $2.8 billion at an international donor's conference in Egypt on Monday, where the U.S. is expected to pledge $900 million.

The success of reconstruction efforts will depend largely on Israel's agreement to reopen border crossings into Gaza to let through building materials and other equipment and commodities. Israel blockaded its borders with Gaza after Hamas militants overran the territory nearly two years ago, opening them only to let in limited humanitarian supplies.

Truce talks recently deadlocked over Israel's insistence that Hamas release a long-held Israeli soldier before border crossings are opened.

A power-sharing deal between Hamas and the moderate West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also seen as key to reconstruction efforts. The international community shuns the violently anti-Israel Hamas and won't send money directly to it.

In a report obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad asked donors to channel aid "first and foremost" through his West Bank government.

Hamas and Fatah representatives have been meeting in Cairo this week for Egyptian-mediated talks. But earlier rounds of reconciliation efforts failed, and the two sides remain bitterly divided.

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