The Obama administration's special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, George Mitchell, indicated on Tuesday that an agreement on new peace talks between the two sides might be only weeks away. Mitchell noted that shared concern among Israel and Arab states about Iran is a factor in what he said has been progress in preliminary contacts.
Mitchell, whose role as a U.S. envoy for Northern Ireland a decade ago was instrumental in peace-making there, said he is encouraged by progress in his Middle East contacts and that the two sides might just be weeks away from beginning a new stage in the peace process.
The former U.S. Senate Majority Leader spoke to State Department reporters in his first full-scale briefing since beginning his Middle East mission nearly five months ago.
Mitchell, who has made four trips to the region - including one that ended earlier this week with talks in Syria - did not reject out of hand a statement made on Sunday by the European Union's chief diplomat Javier Solana that peace talks could be launched by the end of July.
"We're going to move as promptly as possible. And in my opening remarks, I said that we hope to conclude the discussions in which we are now engaged very soon. To me, it's a matter of weeks, not many months. So he [Solana] may well be right. But we're going to see how well we can proceed," he said.
Mitchell has been pressing Israel and the Palestinians to live up to commitments made under the 2003 international peace "road map" - including for Israel, a halt to settlement activity and for the Palestinians, taking responsibility for security and stopping anti-Israeli incitement.
At the same time, he has encouraged Arab states to build confidence by taking normalization steps with Israel that were to have come at the end of the peace process under the Saudi-inspired Arab League peace plan of 2002.
Mitchell said he is under no illusions about the difficulty of the process. But he said prospects have been enhanced by President Barack Obama's commitment to peace, as reaffirmed in his June 4 Cairo speech, and shared concern among Israel and U.S. Arab allies about a potentially nuclear-armed Iran.
"What I think is the total personal effort of the Secretary of State and the President have made a dramatic difference in attitudes in the region. In addition, the threat from Iran creates a circumstance unique in the region's history in establishing the possibility of a common interest between nations who, for so long, have been in an adversarial position," he said.
Mitchell spoke on the eve of the first State Department visit by the new Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is considered to be a hard-liner in the right-of-center government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a policy speech on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu for the first time said he is willing to support the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state, but he rejected U.S. calls for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including so-called "natural growth".
Mitchell said the Obama administration's position on settlements is unchanged. He stated that an Israeli press report that said he agreed on his latest trip to the region to accept the expansion of settlements within their current boundaries was "highly inaccurate".