- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

From combined dispatches


President Obama’s Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, met with Israel’s Prime Minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Thursday as a dozen Palestinian groups began a long-awaited dialogue in the Egyptian capital and laid out a plan to tackle key issues that could reunite Palestinians after 18 months of schism between Gaza and the West Bank.

This is Mr. Mitchell’s second Mideast visit since Mr. Obama took office last month. Hillary Rodham Clinton will make her first trip to the region next week as the new secretary of state.

Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Netanyahu have radically different visions of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Mr. Netanyahu thinks negotiations on Palestinian statehood are pointless. Mr. Mitchell wants Israel to resume negotiations to establish a Palestinian state.

Thursday’s meeting was “positive and productive,” Mr. Netanyahu said, and the two still “have a lot to talk about,” the Associated Press reported.

Mr. Mitchell made no statement.

On his arrival from Turkey, Mr. Mitchell headed straight into a meeting with moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has spurned Mr. Netanyahu’s attempts to get her to join him in a broad coalition government.

Mr. Mitchell’s visit comes amid ongoing talks on the region’s future - on a Gaza cease-fire, Gaza reconstruction and Palestinian reconciliation.

Egyptian officials have been trying to mediate a long-term truce between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas group that rules Gaza to replace a fragile cease-fire that ended Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza last month.

And dozens of countries will meet Monday in Egypt for a conference to raise money for rebuilding Gaza after the Israeli offensive. The Palestinians hope to raise $2.8 billion at the conference, where the U.S. is expected to pledge $900 million.

All Palestinian parties to the Cairo talks say they hope the dialogue will lead to a new national unity government to oversee the reconstruction of Gaza after a three-week Israeli offensive and then to organize presidential and parliamentary elections. The participants agreed to form five committees to deal with issues such as the formation of the cabinet, presidential and legislative elections and security services.

Senior Fatah official, Azzam al-Ahmed, said a national unity government may be announced before the end of March.

“Yes, it is possible. We are in a hurry. Once we agree we want to start the implementation, and the first step is the government. Everything is linked to the government,” he told Reuters news agency.

The committees would begin their work March 10 and finish before the end of the month, with a final statement issued after the talks, he said.

An Arab diplomat said Wednesday the Egyptian mediators hoped to complete a deal in time for endorsement by an Arab summit in Qatar in late March.

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