The US envoy to the Middle East has reaffirmed Washington's
"unshakable" support for Israel despite public differences over the
continued building of Israeli settlements.
George Mitchell, who met Israeli leaders on Tuesday, sought to
reassure them that "we are two allies, two friends, and our
commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable".
"And I want you to know we come here to talk not as adversaries in
disagreement but as friends in discussion," he told Binyamin
Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.
"We recognise that the issues are complex and many. But we hope that
we're going to work our way through them to achieve the objective
that we share with you, and that is peace security and prosperity
throughout the region."
In the most public rift between the US and Israel in a decade,
Barack Obama, the US president, has piled on the pressure on
Netanyahu to stop settlement expansion and endorse a Palestinian
state, neither of which the Israeli leader has done.
Netanyahu has said he will outline his policy on relations with the
Palestinians in a speech on Sunday.
Netanyahu has said so far said he is ready to hold talks with Abbas,
but only focus on economic, security and political issues.
Palestinians have rejected his proposed shift of focus away from
Al Jazeera's Nour Odeh, reporting from Ramallah, said that there was
some concern among Palestinian officials that Mitchell would push
for peace talks even if Israel refused to back down on settlement
expansion and a Palestinian state.
The Palestinians say such talks would not achieve anything positive,
our correspondent reported.
Mitchell, who also met Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister,
Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, and Shimon Peres, the
president, is expected to hold talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the
Palestinian president, in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday.
The US envoy has long advocated the need for a settlement freeze as
necessary for any tangible progress in peacemaking.
Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, said freezing
the settlements would only freeze the problem between the Israelis
and Palestinians, not resolve it.
"It will only stop the conflict from escalating," he said, adding
that it remained to be seen whether Israel would listen to Obama
since successive US leaders had made similar demands of Israeli but
to no avail.
He pointed out, however, that Obama had called the settlements
"illegitimate", not just illegal, and that could mean the US taking
a tougher position on the issue.
Despite the pressure from Washington, Israel remains apparently
unfazed, continuing to build or expand settlements that are
considered illegal internationally, arguing that so-called natural
expansion cannot be stopped.
Settlement construction has doubled since Israel recommitted to
halting it at the Annapolis conference 18 months ago and there are
plans for 75,000 new housing units, one-third of which have already
Half a million Jews already live in settlement blocks in the West
Bank and East Jerusalem.
On his fourth visit to the region, Mitchell is also expected to hold
meetings in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, on Thursday and Damascus,
the Syrian capital, on Friday and Saturday.