x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Mitchell presses for Palestinian state

The US Middle East envoy George Mitchell says Washington supports the creation of a Palestinian state 'as soon as possible'.

The Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, left, talks with US envoy George Mitchell, right, after their meeting in Beirut.
The Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, left, talks with US envoy George Mitchell, right, after their meeting in Beirut.

BEIRUT // The US president's special Middle East envoy said today that Washington supports the creation of a Palestinian state "as soon as possible". George Mitchell also sought to reassure Lebanon that US efforts toward a comprehensive peace in the Middle East - including reaching out to Syria and Iran - will not come at Lebanon's expense. "President Obama remains committed to actively and aggressively seeking comprehensive peace in the Middle East. This includes supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state as a homeland for the Palestinian people as soon as possible," Mr Mitchell told reporters in Beirut.

He spoke after talks with president Michel Suleiman and prime minister Fuad Saniora in Lebanon, his latest stop on a tour that will also take him to Syria. The tour follows the Obama administration's fresh efforts to revive the stalled peace process. It comes just a week after Mr Obama's landmark speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in which he promised to work aggressively to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr Obama specifically demanded Israel freeze all settlement construction on land Palestinians claim for their future state and endorse the concept of such a state - something the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused to do, leading to the most public US-Israel disagreement in a decade. Mr Mitchell is the first high-ranking US official to visit Lebanon since the pro-Western coalition defeated the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militant group in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Hizbollah's loss removed one potential obstacle to Mr Obama's Middle East peace efforts. Hizbollah and its ally, the radical Palestinian group Hamas, are staunchly opposed to Israel. Mr Mitchell also stressed that "there can be no lasting solution reached at Lebanon's expense". Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other US officials have said before that Beirut does not have to fear that Washington's efforts to engage Damascus could hurt Lebanon.

Lebanese factions have long been concerned that an improvement of US-Syrian relations might revamp Syrian influence in Lebanon. Syria caved to international pressure and withdrew its troops from Lebanon in the wake of the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a crime many Lebanese blamed on Damascus. Syria, which has denied the claim, still wields some influence over its smaller neighbour, mostly through Hizbollah.

The Lebanese also worry an Arab-Israeli settlement could prompt many of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees that live in the country to stay permanently here, altering Lebanese delicate sectarian demographic balance. *AP