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George Mitchell In Syria: Obama Determined To See "Truly Comprehensive" Mideast Peace

JOSEF FEDERMAN   07/26/09 07:34 PM ET   AP

Mitchell

JERUSALEM — President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy called on the Arab world to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel, and Israel's prime minister said he hoped his country's disputes with the U.S. over West Bank settlement construction would soon be resolved.

Envoy George Mitchell, opening a new round of peace efforts in the region on Sunday, played down the differences with Israel "as discussions among friends." His comments, along with those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared to be aimed at lowering recent tensions as the U.S. tries to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and work for a broader peace between Israel and the Arab world.

Mitchell arrived in Israel from Syria, where he told his hosts the U.S. is determined to achieve a "truly comprehensive" peace settlement that includes normal relations between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors.

"We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavor," he said.

It was Mitchell's second visit to the Syrian capital, reflecting U.S. recognition that Syria would play an important role in any regional peace effort. The Bush administration isolated Syria for years because of its support for violent Palestinian and Lebanese extremist groups.

Mitchell described his talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad as "very candid and positive."

Upon arrival in Israel, Mitchell said he has been urging Arab governments "to take meaningful steps toward normalization as gestures of their own to demonstrate that everyone on the region shares the vision of comprehensive peace."

To help restart peace talks, the U.S. has been pressing Israel to halt all construction in settlements built on captured land claimed by the Palestinians. Some 280,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, in addition to 180,000 residents living in Jewish neighborhoods built in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians seek to establish an independent state that includes the West Bank, with east Jerusalem as their capital.

Netanyahu says limited construction must proceed to accommodate "natural growth" in the settler population. Netanyahu also says east Jerusalem, which Israel captured and annexed in 1967, will always remain part of Israel's capital city.

In east Jerusalem on Sunday, Jews renovating a property in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah scuffled briefly with Jewish and Arab opponents Sunday, police said. The Jews claim they've purchased the property; Arabs say they've taken over an abandoned building owned by an Arab.

Netanyahu said Sunday he hopes to work out key policy disagreements with the U.S. during a series of meetings this week with high-profile American envoys.

"Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn't agreement on all points, and on several issues we are trying to reach an understanding, in order to make progress together toward our shared goals – peace, security and prosperity for the whole Middle East," Netanyahu said ahead of his Cabinet's weekly meeting.

Mitchell was the first of four U.S. officials set to visit this week. Netanyahu was also scheduled to meet Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser James Jones and top Iran and Mideast specialist Dennis Ross.

At a meeting with Israel's defense minister in Tel Aviv, Mitchell described the differences with Israel as "discussions among friends," and "not disputes among adversaries." He said a "wide range of issues" were being addressed, but didn't announce any breakthroughs.

Mitchell is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu, as well as Palestinian leaders on Monday.

Mitchell praised recent steps taken by Netanyahu to boost the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and said he would urge Palestinians on Monday to respond with their own confidence-building steps, such as taking action against anti-Israel incitement.

The Palestinians, encouraged by Obama's tough stance on the settlements, have said they will not meet with Netanyahu until he halts all settlement activity.

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said Mitchell would make a quick trip to Egypt late Sunday. Embassy spokesman Kurt Hoyer said the trip to Cairo came at the request of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

It was not immediately known why Mubarak asked Mitchell to move up his visit, which was originally scheduled for Tuesday.

Egypt's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hossam Zaki, said Mitchell will meet with Mubarak and other officials Monday.

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AP correspondent Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Matti Friedman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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