US Wants Mideast Talks to Start Soon: Envoy

The United States wants to see a swift resumption and quick conclusion of stalled Middle East peace negotiations, American envoy George Mitchell said on Tuesday as he held talks with Israeli leaders.

"We all share an obligation to create the conditions for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations," Mitchell said ahead of a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres on his latest trip to the region.

"We’re now engaged in serious discussions with our Israeli and Palestinian and regional partners to support these efforts," said Mitchell, who is due to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later in the day.

"Israelis and Palestinians have a responsibility to meet their obligations under the roadmap," he said, referring to the 2003 international plan for Middle East peace that called among others for Israel to halt settlements and Palestinians to stop violence.

Mitchell also sought to play down tensions that have arisen between the allies in recent weeks as US President Barack Obama’s administration repeatedly called on Netanyahu to publicly back the two-state solution and stop settlements.

"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," he said.
"Constructive Talks"

The White House said Monday that Obama and Netanyahu had "constructive" talks by phone ahead of the prime minister’s speech on the Middle East peace process next week.

"The president and prime minister had a constructive, 20-minute conversation," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement.

"The president reiterated the principal elements of his Cairo speech, including his commitment to Israel’s security. He indicated that he looked forward to hearing the prime minister’s upcoming speech outlining his views on peace and security."

Netanyahu’s office said that the "discussions were positive and covered a range of subjects."

"Mr Netanyahu indicated to (Obama) that he intends to make a political statement next week setting out the broad outlines of his government’s policy to secure peace and security," it said in a statement.

Netanyahu said he is ready to meet Abbas and begin talks on economic, security and political issues, which he has not specified.

Palestinians have rejected his proposed shift of focus away from territorial issues, whose complexity, Netanyahu said, has frustrated U.S.-backed attempts to reach a final peace deal.

Abbas said renewed talks would be pointless unless Netanyahu first stopped settlement activity and endorsed Palestinian statehood as part of a 2003 peace "road map" that also calls on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on gunmen.

"If Israel rejects this and rejects the two-state solution, then, what shall we negotiate?" Abbas asked during a visit to a school in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Gaza Violence

In the Gaza Strip, fighters opposed to a dialogue tried to blast open Israel’s border fence.

Israeli forces killed four Palestinian gunmen who had planned to breach the border fence with the Hamas-run territory by detonating explosives they had tied to five horses, a military spokesman said.

Palestinians said gunmen fired anti-tank weapons at Israeli soldiers along the Gaza Strip frontier and set off explosives. No Israelis were injured in the attack, the military spokesman said.

Israeli infantry, tanks and combat helicopters fired at the gunmen and several of the horses were killed, the spokesman said. A Hamas radio station said at least 12 fighters took part in the assault, the most ambitious since Israel ended a three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip on Jan. 18.

Hamas, an Islamist group that opposes Washington’s peace efforts, took control of the enclave in 2007 after routing rival Fatah forces loyal to Abbas, who now governs only in the West Bank.

The border attack could make it more difficult for Netanyahu, who heads a right-leaning government and takes a strong line on security, to meet U.S. requests to ease a Gaza blockade and allow in reconstruction material and other goods to ease Palestinian hardship.


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