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Mitchell visit to Israel: Does Obama's path to Iran pass through Jewish settlements?

Peace envoy's trip is part of sweeping effort to demonstrate a broader US approach toward regional peace.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer / April 16, 2009

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell (l.) and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman speak to the press after their meeting in Jerusalem on Thursday. Mr. Mitchell is meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders hoping to give new life to hopes for a two-state solution.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

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Jerusalem

US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, in the region for the first time since the new Israel government led by Benjamin Netanyahu took office, is meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders with an eye toward injecting new life into old hopes for a two-state solution to the conflict.

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Mr. Mitchell, a veteran peace negotiator, has been on the road in the Middle East since Monday. He has met with officials in Morocco and Algeria as part of a sweeping trip to demonstrate the broader perspective the Obama administration intends to take toward regional peace. After meetings here Thursday and in Ramallah on Friday, Mitchell is slated to go to Egypt – a major power broker in the region – as well as to the Gulf countries.

Part of the policy reboot of the Obama team involves the possibility of making a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel's concerns on Iran's nuclear program, one of the leading Israeli newspapers reported.

Mitchell's mandate is to shepherd a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which reached a new nadir in January in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. But that is widely expected to be at odds with the outlook of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party and prime minister from 1996-99, said in his recent inaugural address that he was seeking an economic peace with the Palestinians. Noticeably absent was any reference to the two-state solution, a concept that has been embraced by previous Israelis governments and by the international community.

Netanyahu's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, made an even more controversial speech when he came into office just over two weeks ago, saying that Israel was no longer bound by the Annapolis Process. That relaunching of Middle East peace talks in November 2007 was sponsored by the Bush administration and attended by many Arab countries under the aegis of the Saudi-offered peace initiative for comprehensive peace.

But officials in Netanyahu's administration say that the world should not jump to conclusions about what his government is or isn't willing to do in the interests of peace.

"We are currently undergoing a policy review, and, to be fair, the US is only now coming out of their policy review. They're in office for months, and we're in office for days," said an official in Netanyahu's office. "The prime minister talked about his desire to engage the Palestinian Authority, and he said he wanted to work in parallel on three tracks: economic, security, diplomatic."

Peace envoy quietly tests water

Mitchell has not planned any media stops or public statements during the Israeli-Palestinian visit, in part because he was still trying to get a hold on where the new Israeli government stands.

"This is the first time that he'll have a chance to meet with this sitting government, and he's going to begin to answer for himself what this government will look like," says Stewart Tuttle, a spokesman for the US Embassy. He noted that the trips to other countries in the region, especially those where senior US officials rarely go, were demonstrative of the new administration's desire to take in a bigger picture of the Middle East.

"He's touching base with lots of interested parties in the region," Mr. Tuttle adds. "This is the administration's effort to have a broad view of what's happening in the region, not exclusively a focus on what's happening right here."

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