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US wants Mideast talks to start soon, end quickly

JERUSALEM: Washington wants the stalled Middle East peace talks to resume soon and wrap up quickly, US envoy George Mitchell told Israeli leaders on Tuesday on his latest trip to the region. Mitchell, whose trip comes just days before hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to outline his cabinet s peace policy, sought to …


JERUSALEM: Washington wants the stalled Middle East peace talks to resume soon and wrap up quickly, US envoy George Mitchell told Israeli leaders on Tuesday on his latest trip to the region.

Mitchell, whose trip comes just days before hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to outline his cabinet s peace policy, sought to play down the rising tensions between the two close allies over Washington s peace drive.

We all share an obligation to create the conditions for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations, Mitchell said ahead of talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

We re now engaged in serious discussions with our Israeli and Palestinian and regional partners to support these efforts, said Mitchell, who was also due to meet Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Netanyahu later in the day.

On Monday, Mitchell said US President Barack Obama had told him to work for an immediate resumption of the peace talks, which restarted under US stewardship in November 2007 but suspended amid the Gaza war early this year.

He also reiterated that Washington sees the creation of a Palestinian state as the only viable political solution to the decades-old conflict.

Netanyahu has yet to publicly embrace the principle of a Palestinian state, and the Israeli press has been filled with speculation in recent days that he may finally do so in a speech he is due to give on Sunday.

Another major bone of contention that has driven a rift between the United States and Israel is that of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which the international community considers illegal.

Obama s administration has repeatedly called for a complete halt to all settlement activity, including so-called natural growth construction to accommodate population increases.

Netanyahu s largely right-wing government vigorously opposes this and would probably collapse if the premier caves in to Washington s demands, analysts in Israel say.

Tensions between the key allies have jumped to levels unseen in nearly two decades as Obama has pushed to jump-start the moribund peace process, raising fears in Israel that Washington may ease its support as it seeks to improve US relations with the Muslim world.

In a speech from Cairo to the Muslim world last Thursday, Obama reiterated Washington s unbreakable bond with Israel, but vowed not to turn his back on Palestinian aspirations and repeated his call for a halt to Jewish settlements.

Mitchell sought to play down disagreements on Tuesday, saying US commitment to Israeli security – the Jewish state s top concern – remained unshakeable and that the United States and Israel are and will remain close allies and friends.

But he also reiterated that Israelis and Palestinians have a responsibility to meet their obligations under the roadmap, referring to the 2003 international plan for Middle East peace that called among other things for Israel to halt settlements and Palestinians to stop violence.

On Monday the White House said Obama and Netanyahu had constructive talks by phone ahead of the prime minister s expected speech.

The president reiterated the principal elements of his Cairo speech, including his commitment to Israel s security, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

He indicated that he looked forward to hearing the prime minister s upcoming speech outlining his views on peace and security.

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