Mitchell heads to Israel, other Mideast nations
U.S. special envoy George Mitchell leaves on Friday to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt as he seeks to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the State Department said, Reuters reported.
Mitchell has been trying to put together a package under which Israel would freeze settlement construction and Arab nations would make gestures toward recognizing the Jewish state as a precursor to the resumption of peace talks.
The envoy hopes to secure a deal for a possible meeting at the U.N. General Assembly this month among Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Barack Obama.
U.S. officials have declined to speculate on the odds of that occurring or of peace talks, which have been stalled since December, resuming.
"We are in discussions. Where they lead and how quickly, we'll see," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters as he announced Mitchell's travel.
The spokesman said Mitchell was expected to visit Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt after his talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials but he declined to specify his exact travel plans.
Netanyahu's refusal so far to stop settlement activity has led to a rare Israeli diplomatic rift with Washington, and the issue of ceasing construction is likely to be among the most difficult on Mitchell's trip.
Israel approved on Monday the building of 455 settler homes in the West Bank, a move that drew Palestinian protests and rare U.S. criticism but that could pave the way for the construction moratorium sought by Washington.
Some 500,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank, land which Israel captured in a 1967 war and Palestinians seek for a state, and Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed as part of its capital in a move not recognized internationally.
Palestinians, who number about three million in the West Bank, say settlements deprive them of land for a viable state.