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U.S. Envoy Mitchell In Israel For First Talks With New Government

U.S. Envoy George Mitchell (left) and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman
The U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is in Israel for his first meetings with the new government since it took office last month.

Well in advance of his arrival, Mitchell signaled the firm view of U.S. President Barack Obama that a two-state solution is the only way to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict -- an idea that has received no endorsement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mitchell emphasized this policy during remarks in Morocco, the first stop of his current regional tour. He repeated it in Algeria for good measure before hitting Tunisia.

The symbolism of visiting Arab heads of state to get their "advice" before seeing the Israeli leaders is a demonstration of Obama's new style of thinking on the Mideast problem. It will not be lost on the Arab world.

Mitchell is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu and his ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on April 16 in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has carefully avoided supporting the two-state policy followed by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. He has not clarified what path toward peace with the Palestinians he intends to follow, but he has suggested that economic prosperity for the West Bank should be sufficient to dampen Palestinian political demands.

By contrast, the firebrand Lieberman has said outright that Israel is not bound by the earlier U.S.-brokered agreement to negotiate Palestinian independence.

Mitchell has already held talks in Tel Aviv with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former general who takes a strong view of the danger posed by Iran, which the West believes is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Again, the United States and Israel back differing approaches. Obama has unleashed a charm offensive on Tehran in an attempt to break down decades of hostility between the two nations and to draw Iran into negotiations, while many Israeli politicians are wary of such an approach.

However, Israeli President Shimon Peres told Mitchell on April 16 that he agrees there is no military solution to the threat of Iran's nuclear program.

The Associated Press quotes Peres as saying progress with Iran depends on international cooperation and exploring whether dialogue presents a real opportunity, or if Tehran is just stalling.

Peres dismissed suggestions that Israel is prepared to make a military strike on Iran.

In the end, despite various policy differences, the United States and Israel remain close allies.

Mitchell meets on April 17 with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas before continuing on to Egypt.