US envoy assures Israel of strong alliance

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The Independent Online

US envoy George Mitchell today assured Israel that the United States would remain its close ally despite differences over Jewish settlements and peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Mitchell told President Shimon Peres his goal was to create conditions for "prompt resumption and early conclusion" of talks leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state "side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel".

US President Barack Obama, who sent Mitchell back to the Middle East, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are at odds over settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and the Israeli leader's reluctance to endorse Palestinian statehood.

"Let me be clear. These are not disagreements among adversaries. The United States and Israel are and will remain close allies and friends," Mitchell said.

Under pressure to soften his positions, Netanyahu is to spell out his policy on peacemaking with the Palestinians in a speech on Sunday. His security cabinet was to meet on Wednesday to consider US calls to ease the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu was to meet later in the day with Mitchell, who will see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday.

Abbas has said it would be useless to resume peace talks with Israel unless Netanyahu froze settlement building and accepted a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an address to the Muslim world in Cairo last week, Obama also called on Israel to stop settlement expansion and accept the right of Palestinians to a state.



TELEPHONE CONSULTATION

Obama spoke to Netanyahu by phone yesterday. The White House said the president "reiterated the principal elements of his Cairo speech, including his commitment to Israel's security".

Echoing Obama, Mitchell said at the meeting with Peres: "I want to begin by stating again clearly and emphatically beyond any doubt that the United States' commitment to the security of Israel remains unshakeable."

Netanyahu has cited Israel's security as paramount in any peace efforts and has said that any self-governing Palestinian entity must be demilitarised and have limited powers of sovereignty.

Mitchell said the United States expected both Israel and the Palestinians to meet their obligations under the U.S.-backed 2003 peace "road map".

The plan calls on Israel to halt settlement activity, including "natural growth", or construction within existing enclaves to accommodate growing families. Netanyahu has said "natural growth" will continue.

Under the road map, the Palestinian Authority is to rein in militants. Obama has praised actions taken by security forces loyal to Abbas to crack down on gunmen in the West Bank.

Israel cites the Islamist militant group Hamas's continued control of the Gaza Strip as evidence that Palestinian security commitments have not been met.

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