U.S. promises sustained Middle East peace bid

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 3, 2009 2:03pm EST

President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell speaks before a meeting with Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem January 28, 2009. Mitchell will return to the region this month as the United States works to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool

President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell speaks before a meeting with Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem January 28, 2009. Mitchell will return to the region this month as the United States works to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday.

Credit: Reuters/Gali Tibbon/Pool

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Following through on a pledge to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority, the Obama administration will send its Middle East envoy back to the region this month to try to revive stalled talks.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that envoy George Mitchell, whose first trip came a week after Barack Obama took over the presidency, would return to the Middle East before the end of February.

Clinton, with Mitchell at her side, said the United States was prepared to work with "all of the parties" to make progress toward Palestinian statehood.

But she urged the militant group Hamas to meet oft-repeated conditions. "They (Hamas) must renounce violence, they must recognize Israel, they must agree to abide by prior agreements," she said.

Asked whether Clinton might have a new approach toward Hamas, State Department spokesman Robert Wood indicated no policy shift.

"I don't think there was any ambiguity there on what she said," said Wood.

But Middle East expert Shibley Telhami said how to tackle Hamas was a key issue for the new team. Hamas, which the Bush administration isolated, rules Gaza while the West Bank is run by President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement.

"The real choice is between whether they continue just to support President Abbas ... or whether they will actively pursue a policy that encourages Arab partners to bring about reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah," said Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland.

PROMISES

In his presidential campaign Obama promised to focus on the Middle East right away. His predecessor, George W. Bush, who was engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, waited until his last year in office to make a major effort in the area.

Clinton, whose husband President Bill Clinton worked until nearly his last day in office to get an elusive deal, promised a sustained effort from the new administration.

"This is the first of what will be an ongoing high level of engagement by Senator Mitchell on behalf of myself and the president," she said.

"The United States is committed to this path, and we are going to work as hard as we can over what period of time is required to try to help the parties make progress together," she added.

Mitchell, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland, returned on Monday from talks with Israelis and Palestinians in a bid to shore up a ceasefire in Gaza following Israel's three-week offensive launched in December.

Mitchell said the situation was "obviously complex and difficult" but he was convinced that with patient diplomacy the United States could help achieve a long-term peace.

"There are no easy or risk-free courses of action," he told reporters. "I plan to establish a regular and sustained presence in the region."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled nearly monthly to Israel and the West Bank in her final year in office in a bid to get the two sides closer to reaching a deal.

Mitchell said leaders in the region were anxious for Clinton to go at an "appropriate time."

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband met both Clinton and Mitchell at the State Department and said they had discussed, among other issues, how to ensure humanitarian aid could get through to Palestinians and international efforts to stop arms smuggling into Gaza.

"(We also looked at) keeping alive the critically important long-term vision of two states -- Israel and Palestine living side by side in security, which is so essential to regional stability," he added.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and John Whitesides; editing by David Wiessler and Mohammad Zargham)

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