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US Envoy Mitchell Launches Mideast Peace Mission

Senior officials from the United States are converging on Israel for talks on the Middle East conflict and Iran.

U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell will hold three days of separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to advance the peace process. But in a sign the United States is not focusing solely on the Palestinian issue, Mitchell began his mission in Damascus.

"President Obama is determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace," Mitchell said. "That means peace between Palestinians and Israelis, between Syria and Israel, and between Lebanon and Israel."

Mitchell will press Israel to halt Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and disputed East Jerusalem. Israel has rejected U.S. demands for a total freeze on settlement construction, souring relations with Washington.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played down the dispute at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

Mr. Netanyahu said that while allies sometimes have disagreements, the U.S. and Israel are trying to come to an understanding. He said both countries "have a common goal of peace, security and prosperity for the entire Middle East."

On Monday, Iran will top the agenda when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets with Israeli leaders. He is expected to press Israel not to carry out its threat to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

But Israeli spokesman Zalman Shoval says with Iran's president still threatening to wipe the Jewish state "off the map", Israel is making no promises.

"All options are still on the table, which includes, of course, a military option," Shoval said.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the United States and Israel believe the Islamic Republic is trying to acquire the atom bomb.