Washington officials will focus their diplomatic efforts on Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and Iran's nuclear ambitions.
US looks for compromise with Israel
TEL AVIV // George Mitchell, the top US Middle East envoy, and Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, will visit Israel this week along with two other senior American officials in a possibly co-ordinated effort by Washington to mitigate differences with Israel on the issue of Jewish settlements and Iran's nuclear ambitions. Mr Mitchell is due to arrive today to meet Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and Palestinian officials in Ramallah to try to advance the US call for Israel to cease all construction in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. While Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Israeli prime minister, has so far rejected the demand, Mr Mitchell is trying to find a compromise solution that would push open the door for Israeli peace talks with the Palestinians, who have said they will only renew negotiations should a settlement freeze be implemented. On Friday, PJ Crowley, a spokesman for the US state department, said of Mr Mitchell's efforts: "He wants to be clear that ? all sides are creating the conditions ? so that when we begin a formal negotiating process, we've put ourselves in the best position to have a successful outcome." Israel's ties with the US, its staunchest ally, have become strained amid the diplomatic dispute over the expansion of settlements. Mr Netanyahu insists Israel will keep building in the territory that Palestinians want as part of their future state to accommodate the growing Jewish families living in the area. Dan Meridor, Israel's deputy prime minister and one of the most moderate officials in the predominantly hardline government, last week said the US demand on settlements violates past agreements the two allies have made and could weaken US credibility in the future. Mr Netanyahu has also resisted calls by the US and European Union countries including Germany and France to suspend construction of homes for Jews in East Jerusalem, which is mostly Arab and which the Palestinians view as their future capital. On Friday, Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, reported that the US has issued a stiff warning to Israel not to build in the area known as E-1, a region of occupied land between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, the biggest Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Palestinians say that building in E-1 would deny them a viable state by cutting the West Bank in two and isolating east Jerusalem. Settlements are not the only issue of discord between Israel and the US. Mr Gates, who is arriving in Israel on Monday for a visit that US officials describe as brief and routine, is expected to discuss with Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, and other Israeli officials the US approach to tackling Iran's nuclear capabilities. The topic of Iran is also anticipated to be central in separate visits later in the week in Israel by James Jones, the US national security adviser, and Dennis Ross, a senior Middle East adviser to Mr Obama. Analysts expect the three US officials to try to dissuade Israel from moving forward with plans for a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities to give more time for a bid by Barack Obama, the US president, to conduct a dialogue with Iran on ending the programme. Their work is not expected to be easy. Mr Netanyahu, joined by leaders of more centrist Israeli political parties, views Iran's nuclear programme as the biggest threat to the existence of Israel and has said Israel is prepared to take matters into its own hands should the US approach on negotiations with Iran yield little success soon. Such threats are raising tensions with Iran. On Saturday, the head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards Corps was quoted as warning on the country's Arabic-language television channel Al Alam that the Islamic republic is capable of attacking the nuclear sites of Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power. Mr Obama has said he expects Iran to respond to the diplomatic overture by September, and he has set an unofficial deadline of the end of this year to determine the success of his attempt at talks. But Israeli leaders are sceptical Mr Obama's efforts will succeed and have expressed concern that the US has reconciled itself to the scenario of a nuclear-armed Iran. Such worries were further spurred last week when Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, cautioned that the US may extend a "defence umbrella" over Arab Gulf states should Tehran develop nuclear weapons. Her remarks were viewed as an indication that the US is preparing for the possibility of an Iranian bomb. Mr Meridor, the Israeli deputy premier, has called Ms Clinton's statement a "mistake," adding that the US appears to have accepted the inevitability of a nuclear Iran. He was quoted on Israeli radio as saying last week: "We don't need to deal with the assumption that Iran will attain nuclear weapons, but rather to prevent this." firstname.lastname@example.org