- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

President Obama sent his Middle East envoy George Mitchell off for a visit to the region Monday night, charging him with listening and making sure his multination trip achieves more than photo-ops.

Mr. Obama, huddling with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Mitchell in his Cabinet room, said the envoy will be “fully empowered” to speak for the United States.

He said Mr. Mitchell is tasked with getting ideas of how to solidify the cease-fire, ensure Israel’s security while ensuring Palestinians in Gaza are able to get the basic necessities they need and see a pathway toward long-term development.

“The charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress,” the president said before they held a private briefing. “And when I say progress, not just photo-ops, but progress that is concretely felt by people on the ground, so that people feel more secure in their lives, so that they feel that the hopes and dreams and aspirations of their children can be met.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters earlier Monday Mr. Mitchell, named to the post last week, will visit Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman, Riyadh, Paris and London. Mr. Mitchell’s goal for the trip is “to begin the process that the president promised to be actively engaged in, the peace process there in the Middle East.”

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Mr. Mitchell will travel through Feb. 3 and will discuss the situation in Gaza.

Also on the trip will be David Hale, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and representatives from the National Security Council and Department of Defense.

Mr. Obama noted it is “one of the earliest initiatives that we have taken diplomatically,” and he hopes Mr. Mitchell will be able to communicate the U.S. considers the issue “urgent” and also to “listen … learn, and find out what various players in the region are thinking.”

“The cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests. It’s important to me personally. It is important to Arabs and Jews. It is important to Christians, and Muslims, and Jews all around the world,” Mr. Obama said. Mr. Wood offered more details earlier Monday. “The administration will actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its neighbors,” Mr. Wood said. “In furtherance … of these goals on this trip, Special Envoy Mitchell will work to consolidate the cease-fire in Gaza, establish an effective and credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime to prevent the rearming of Hamas, facilitate the reopening of border crossings, and develop an effective response to the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and eventual reconstruction, and reinvigorate the peace process.” Mr. Wood added that Mr. Mitchell will be in a “listening mode” and that there are no set decisions for policy that will surface from the trip.

“We have a new administration. It’s taking a look at a number of different policies from the previous administration, will be coming up with its own initiatives. And so why don’t we just give it a little time and let, you know, Senator Mitchell do his work,” he said.

The president Monday spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr. Gibbs said.

Mr. Gibbs also addressed Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s remarks Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that there would be an “uptick” in casualties in Afghanistan as the United States increases the troop presence there.

Mr. Gibbs said the president intends to send more troops there because Mr. Obama feels the war in Iraq distracted from the fight against “the same people that planned terrorist attacks in this country” and might be planning more. He said the president is talking with military commanders to evaluate the U.S. posture as it relates to Afghanistan.

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