January 27, 2009 / 7:53 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. envoy due in Israel on Middle East peace push

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrives in Israel on Wednesday to take the first steps toward reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Sobhi al-Shaweesh (C) stands in front of his family farm in the village of Johr al-Deek in the Gaza Strip January 26, 2009. Hamas Islamists have started handing out cash to some families who lost homes in Israel's 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip, but the amounts have so far fallen far short of what was promised by the group. Al-Shaweesh, whose family farm was pulverised by Israeli bulldozers and tank fire, welcomed assistance but was dismissive of the $1,000 grant, estimating the cost of restoring his substantial home and surrounding family properties at a hefty $500,000. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem (GAZA)

A former U.S. senator and experienced mediator who helped end the Northern Ireland conflict, Mitchell began his regional tour in Cairo on Tuesday bearing a message from U.S. President Barack Obama that the “moment is ripe” for peace talks.

He will meet Israeli leaders on Wednesday afternoon and visit the West Bank on Thursday to talk to Palestinian leaders, but Western diplomats said he would not meet Hamas officials.

Obama has made clear the Middle East conflict is a high priority he wants to tackle early in his presidency and, in an interview with Al Arabiya satellite channel, said he had told Mitchell to “start by listening” and report back.

“The moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table,” he said.

Obama assured Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert he would maintain Washington’s commitment to Israel, but also praised King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for the Saudi-sponsored peace initiative offering Israel peace with the Arabs in exchange for withdrawal from Arab land occupied since 1967 and a just solution for Palestinian refugees.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders set out their positions on Tuesday before Mitchell’s arrival.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a candidate to succeed Olmert in a February 10 election, told Jewish leaders: “We need ... to achieve a peace treaty with the pragmatic Palestinians, with a legitimate Palestinian government which expresses the vision of two nation states ...”

TOUGH STANCE AFTER OFFENSIVE

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said he would toughen his stance following Israel’s 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip.

He said he would tell Mitchell that Israel’s Gaza offensive proved it was not intent on peacemaking.

“Israel does not want peace, otherwise it would not have done this. We need to understand this and tell it to those coming from Europe and America. Israel wants to waste time to strengthen facts on the ground with settlements and the wall.”

Israel began its attack on Gaza, ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, on December 27 saying it wanted to stop militant rocket fire into nearby Israeli towns. Some 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during the offensive.

Hamas and Israel declared separate ceasefires and are negotiating through Egyptian mediators on a longer-term truce. Hamas wants Israel to lift its blockade. Israel wants guarantees that Hamas will not again fire rockets at Israeli towns.

Slideshow (2 Images)

On Tuesday an Israeli soldier was killed by a roadside bomb on the border with the Gaza Strip and Israeli troops then killed a Palestinian, actions that strained the ceasefire.

Olmert later told civil servants the Israeli troops’ reaction to the bomb was only an operational action in the field, and that Israel’s full response was still to come, Israeli media websites reported.

Mitchell, who was due to meet Egyptian officials before going to Israel and the West Bank, is also due to visit Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain on his week-long trip.

Editing by Tim Pearce

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