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U.S. Drive For Middle East Peace Gathers Pace

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (right) meets with U.S. envoy George Mitchell in Jerusalem.
The all-star lineup of officials and diplomats indicates how much political prestige U.S. President Barack Obama is investing into advancing the Middle East peace process.

His special envoy George Mitchell has spent the week shuttling between Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, and Egypt in accord with Obama's policy that any settlement will have to span the region.

Mitchell emphasized this after meeting on July 28 with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

"President Obama's vision is of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East which includes peace between Israel and Palestinians, between Syria and Israel, and between Israel and Lebanon, and also the full normalization of relations between Israel and all of its neighbors in the region," Mitchell said.

"That is our objective, and it is to that which we have committed ourselves fully."

Mitchell earlier was in Damascus, where he took another step toward bringing Syria in from the cold. Speaking after talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mitchell said restarting peace talks between Syria and Israel is a "near-term goal."

In Washington, a White House spokesman said the Obama administration is moving to relieve the pressure of U.S. economic sanctions on Syria.

Pressure On Iran

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had talks with Jordan's King Abdullah about the perceived threat of Iran's alleged nuclear-arms program.

Iran is emerging as one of the biggest obstacles to a Mideast settlement, in that Israel says there is no point reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians until the question of a nuclear Iran is resolved. After talks with the king, Gates warned Iran that Washington would seek tough new sanctions unless Tehran responded to its invitation to a dialogue.

Back in Jerusalem, Mitchell met Israel's Netanyahu to discuss Obama's demand that Israel stop all settlement building on Palestinian territory. The U.S. president has been unusually firm on this point, which has caused the worst strain on mutual relations for a decade.

Netanyahu has insisted that Israel must be allowed to continue expanding existing settlements to cater for natural growth. However, both men emerged from their talks expressing guarded optimism that progress has been made.

"I think we're making progress towards achieving an understanding that will enable us to continue and, in fact, complete a peace process that would be established between us and our Palestinian neighbors and ultimately the entire region," Netanyahu said. "And I look forward to continuing this toward success."

The Palestinian leadership has refused to resume peace talks unless Israel halts all settlement expansion.

Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, and envoy Dennis Ross will also meet Netanhahu after their arrival in Israel on July 28.

with news agency reporting