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US Mideast Envoy to Pursue Direct Peace Talks


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is sending Middle East envoy George Mitchell back to the region next week to press for an upgrade of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and fulfillment of Israeli pledges to ease the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The announcement of the Mitchell trip, the envoy's second to the region this month, followed a meeting here between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The meeting represented a further easing of tensions between Israel and its principle ally after a deadly Israeli commando attack on a flotilla of civilian ships trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza late last month.


Israel has since announced what it says will be a major expansion in the volume and types of goods that will be allowed to enter the Hamas-controlled area through Israeli land checkpoints.

At a photo session with Clinton, Barak said the Israeli government is fully committed to try to find a way to move the Mideast peace process forward and "put aside the difficulties that arose in recent weeks."

Israel has yet to announce the specifics of its new Gaza policy. But State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States is hopeful it will yield a major improvement in the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

"We do welcome this step," he said. "It is a dramatic change in how Israel has approached Gaza from the last couple of years. Implementation will be important. Particulars will be important. Obviously, a critical aspect here is in helping the people of Gaza not just sustain their daily lives, but to recreate a viable economy within Gaza."

Crowley said the new Israeli policy should allow the import of construction materials to help restore infrastructure in Gaza damaged in the conflict between Israel and Hamas that began in late 2008.

Israel has barred shipments to Gaza of construction items, including concrete, on grounds that Hamas would use them to rebuild bunkers and other military sites destroyed in the fighting.

Earlier Wednesday, in a written statement, the State Department made an implicit call on Lebanon and activists there to cancel their plans to send aid ships to Gaza in a possible replay of the Turkish-based convoy effort that was violently stopped by Israel on May 31.

It said delivery by sea is neither appropriate nor responsible under present circumstances, and that there is no need for "unnecessary confrontations" in meeting the needs of the people of Gaza.

State Department Spokesman Crowley said another objective of the upcoming Mitchell mission will be to try to build trust and upgrade the so-called proximity peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to full-scale direct negotiations.

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