President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy called on the Arab world yesterday to take steps towards normalising relations with Israel, while Israel's prime minister said he hoped his country's disputes with the US over West Bank settlement construction would soon be resolved.
Envoy George Mitchell, opening a new round of peace efforts in the region, played down the differences with Israel "as discussions among friends". His comments, along with those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared aimed at lowering recent tensions, as the US tries to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and work for a broader peace between Israel and the Arab world.
Mr Mitchell arrived in Israel from Syria, where he told his hosts the US is determined to achieve a "truly comprehensive" peace that includes normal relations between Israel and all its Arab neighbours. "We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavour," he said. It was Mitchell's second visit to the Syrian capital, reflecting US recognition that Syria will play an important role in any regional peace effort.
The Bush administration isolated Syria for years because of its support for violent Palestinian and Lebanese extremist groups. Mr Mitchell described his talks with President Bashar Assad as "very candid and positive".
On arrival in Israel, Mr Mitchell said he has been urging Arab governments "to take meaningful steps toward normalisation as gestures of their own to demonstrate that everyone in the region shares the vision of comprehensive peace".
To help restart peace talks, the US has been pressing Israel to halt all construction in settlements built on occupied Palestinian land. Some 280,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, in addition to 180,000 residents living in Jewish settlements built in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians seek an independent state that includes the West Bank, with east Jerusalem as their capital.