- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

JERUSALEM | U.S. envoy George Mitchell has days of meetings scheduled with leaders in the Middle East, but likely faces his most critical round Friday when he is to see Benjamin Netanyahu.

The chairman of Israel’s center-right Likud Party is the front-runner for prime minister in the Feb. 10 national elections, and many here speculate that his hawkish approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking could put him at loggerheads with the new U.S. administration.

Aides to Mr. Netanyahu said the former prime minister has a good personal relationship with President Obama stemming from two meetings when Mr. Obama was a U.S. senator.

They also emphasized at a conference Wednesday on U.S. Middle East diplomacy that Mr. Netanyahu would do his best to avoid friction that has arisen on occasion between Israeli leaders and U.S. presidents, including Mr. Netanyahu and President Clinton in the 1990s.

While Mr. Obama has spoken about the urgency of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Netanyahu’s aides focused on the president’s interview with the Al-Arabiya network earlier this week in which he said he did not expect the conflict to be solved in a matter of months.

Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t think a near-term or a medium-term resolution is realistic, said Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to Washington and a top foreign policy aide to the Likud leader.

“Achieving peace isn’t going to happen any time soon,” he said. “This is going to be a long process.”

Mr. Shoval said Mr. Netanyahu will reiterate to Mr. Mitchell his priority for “economic peace” in the Palestinian territories that would raise the Palestinian standard of living and help prevent violence. Mr. Netanyahu is also skeptical about whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has the power to implement a peace deal, Mr. Shoval said.

U.S. officials have said that Mr. Mitchell is on a “listening tour” of the region and that his immediate focus is bolstering a tenuous Gaza cease-fire.

In a violation of the week-old truce, Palestinian militants fired a rocket into Israel on Wednesday.

Such actions intensify Israeli pressure to launch another painful retaliation against Hamas after a three-week war that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

At the end of a meeting with outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday, Mr. Mitchell said the U.S. is pushing for an end to arms smuggling into Gaza, the reopening of borders and a cessation of violence.

By visiting the region soon after his appointment, Mr. Mitchell is signaling that the Obama administration will be active in trying to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Mr. Mitchell began his Middle East tour in Egypt on Tuesday. He also is scheduled to visit the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

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