The White House said on Monday it was “encouraged” by “productive” talks with Middle East leaders held by US envoy George Mitchell, amid a flurry of diplomacy aimed at reviving peace moves.
Amid new signs of hope for indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians, US President Barack Obama dropped by a meeting Monday between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his national security advisor James Jones.
The White House encounter was the latest effort to ease a standoff between Israel and the Obama administration over Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem, which has sparked rare public sparring matches between the allies.
The president also called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to wish him well after recent surgery and to stress he was working towards an atmosphere conducive to relaunching peace talks, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Washington was “encouraged by the productive nature” of Mitchell’s mission, which included talks late last week and on the weekend with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Gibbs said.
“The meetings have been productive in moving this process forward, as we’ve talked about for the past many weeks, and getting these two parties to the table,” he said.
In meeting Barak, Obama “reaffirmed [Washington’s] unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” he added. Obama also expressed the US desire for “comprehensive peace” including a “two-state solution with a secure Jewish state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with a viable and independent Palestinian state.”
It was Barak’s first visit to the White House since he accompanied Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to talks with Obama last month, which broke down in a row over settlements in East Jerusalem, which is still unresolved.
Gibbs said that Obama congratulated Mubarak on the birth of his first granddaughter and wished him good health.
“They discussed the importance of creating an atmosphere for peace in the Middle East and agreed to follow up in the near future on a broad range of issues of mutual interest,” Gibbs said.
Mitchell has invited Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to Washington next month, Palestinian officials said, though the trip has not yet been announced officially by the White House.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, reiterated his desire to launch direct talks with the Palestinians immediately and said he expects to learn “in the next few days” whether negotiations are to resume.
The US has been pressing the two sides to return to negotiations for months, but the Palestinians have refused to do so without a complete freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, including annexed Arab East Jerusalem.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that indirect “proximity” talks between the two sides would resume no later than the middle of next month.
The daily said Obama has informed Abbas that he did not convince Netanyahu to freeze settlements in East Jerusalem but that the hawkish prime minister would refrain from taking “significant” actions there during the talks.
It also said the negotiations would encompass all the core issues of the decades-old conflict, including Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and final borders.
The Palestinians, with backing from Arab states, reluctantly agreed to indirect US-brokered talks last month but the initiative collapsed days later when Israel announced it would build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem.
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