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New U.S. Envoy Set To Tour Middle East

George Mitchell's (right) trip is seen as an important boost to the peace effort because he has a proven record of success in brokering ends to conflicts.
(RFE/RL) -- The new U.S. envoy to the Middle East, former Senator George Mitchell, is due to visit the region for the first time this week.

Washington has yet to say how long Mitchell will remain in the region, but diplomats have told news agencies privately that the trip, due to begin with Mitchell's arrival in Israel on January 27, could extend for a week.

During that time he will hold talks with Israeli officials and, on January 28, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah.

He may also visit Egypt, Jordan, and possibly Syria. But Washington has ruled out a visit to Gaza or direct talks with Hamas.

Mitchell's challenge is how to strengthen the fragile cease-fire that now exists between Israel and Hamas following their three-week war. Israel unilaterally declared a cease-fire on January 17 and has since fully withdrawn its troops from the Gaza Strip.

But there is no deal to assure the fighting will not renew and it will be Mitchell's task to try to secure that in the form of a formal truce between the two sides.

Israel says the war has weakened Hamas and thus in large part achieved its aim of stopping missile fire by militants in Israel. But Jerusalem now wants to assure that Hamas is not able to rearm by bringing in new weapons via tunnels from Egypt.

Hamas, which claims it won the war by not capitulating, demands Israel end its year-and-a-half-long economic blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas seized power in factional fighting with Fatah, the party of President Abbas, in 2007.

Uncertainties over how quickly a formal truce can be reached are heightened by upcoming elections in Israel on February 10. No party there wants to be seen as making too many concessions to Hamas ahead of those polls.

Similarly, on the Palestinian side it is unclear how much of a role the Palestinian Authority, which supports the peace process with Israel, can have in pressing Hamas to now adopt more moderate positions.

Still, Mitchell's arrival is seen as an important boost to the peace effort because he has a proven record of success in brokering ends to conflicts.

He served as special envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process during the 1990s, under the Clinton administration. And he has also worked on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past.

He also has some personal ties to the region as the son of an Irish father and a Lebanese mother. That background has been welcomed by some Arab leaders, even if no one expects it to influence his work.

compiled from agency reports