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US Envoy Pushes Israel to Restart Peace Talks with Palestinians

U.S. Envoy George Mitchell is in Israel, meeting with officials in an effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. His aim is to turn the message of President Obama to the Muslim world last week - a message that included the U.S. call for a freeze of Jewish settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state - into a practical plan. Mitchell faces a challenge, as government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes those measures.

U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell met with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Tuesday.

After meeting with President Shimon Peres, Mitchell said his goal is to set the stage for a prompt resumption and early conclusion of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinians.

The Obama administration wants a total freeze on settlement expansion - something Mr. Netanyahu has said Israel will not do. The Israeli leader wants to avoid entering full-fledged peace negotiations with the Palestinians that would require Israel to make concessions on sensitive issues such as the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Mitchell reassured Israeli officials that the United States remains committed to Israel's security. The same message was conveyed by President Obama to Mr. Netanyahu during a telephone conversation on Monday.

In Jerusalem Tuesday, Mitchell said any disagreement between Washington and Israel are not disagreements among adversaries. He says the United States and Israel remain close allies and friends. However, he says Israel and the Palestinians must both stick to the terms of the "roadmap" to peace.

That 2003 plan calls for an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state to emerge and exist side by side in peace and security with Israel.

Analysts say Mr. Netanyahu knows it is not in Israel's interest to antagonize Washington - the Jewish state's biggest ally and supporter. Akiva Eldar, a senior columnist with the Ha'aretz newspaper in Tel Aviv, says U.S. pressure may force Mr. Netanyahu to make tough political decisions.

"Israel will be left with the choice of saying 'no' both to the United States and to the Palestinians, and to the Arab world, or to say 'yes' and confront the settlers and his constituency," said Eldar.

Many Israelis and Palestinians interpreted Mr. Obama's speech, last week, as a sign that the United States is serious about moving the peace process along. Eldar says Mitchell's job is to make sure Israeli officials understand that message.

"Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to talk directly to the Israeli public and make it clear that they are serious and this old game that we've been playing for many years of this so-called peace process that does not lead to anything is over," he said.

The U.S. envoy is to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, Wednesday.

His trip to the region includes stops in Lebanon and Syria.

Prospects for including Lebanon in the peace process have improved with the victory of a Western-backed coalition in elections, this week.

Both Syria and Lebanon host and hold influence over armed Islamist groups that threaten the Jewish state.