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US launches diplomatic push for 'comprehensive peace'

The US has unleashed a flurry of diplomatic activity, dispatching senior officials throughout the Middle East to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions and illegal settlement activity in occupied Palestinian territories.


The United States has launched yet another high-level diplomatic attempt to revive the Middle East peace process, dispatching this time no less than four top officials to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria to meet with regional leaders.


 “It’s a sign that Israelis and Americans have a lot of issues to talk about”, said FRANCE 24 correspondent Marc de Chalvron in Jerusalem.


US Defence Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Israel on Monday to meet with Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Talks are expected to focus on Israel’s plan to acquire F-35 fighter jets and efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.


“Gates’ top agenda will probably be Iran: coordinating, exchanging information, and verifying that the Israelis understand exactly the new US approach with Iran (…) The main question now is what to do on stage two. How do we agree that we failed? How long do we give diplomacy a chance?”, said Gil Mihaely, editorial writer at Yediot Ahronot, the daily with the highest circulation in Israel, during an interview with FRANCE 24.


While Gates tries to reassure his Israeli hosts about security and military issues, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell returns to the region after an earlier diplomatic visit in June and is due to hold talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.


‘Comprehensive peace’


Mitchell earlier met with Syria's President Bashar Assad in Damascus and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv in order to jumpstart peace talks between Syria and Israel, which have been stalled since 2000.


Washington is committed to a “comprehensive peace in the Middle East and that includes Israel and Palestine, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and normal relations with all countries in the regions”, Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s office quoted Mitchell as saying after the two met in Tel Aviv.


Mitchell’s Middle East tour is scheduled to include meetings with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah and talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, likely to focus on US demands that Israel halts settlement activity in the occupied territories.


“It’s Mitchell’s top priority since his nomination: to get a compromise on colonisation, which would allow to jumpstart peace negotiations”, says Marc de Chalvron.


Tensions have been brewing between the US and Israel over Tel Aviv’s refusal to stop illegal settlement activity on Palestinian lands.


Palestinian leaders have refused to meet their Israeli counterparts until the Netanyahu government freezes all construction on East Jerusalem and West Bank lands they hope to turn into their state.


US defence umbrella over the Middle East


“On the Israeli side, they are sensitive to this kind of pressure, they know what’s going on in Washington, and they’re not looking for a conflict. I think they are very near to having an agreement about the settlements”, said Gil Mihaely.


But Israel claims that current constructions are only “natural growth” of existing settlements and the Netanyahu government will likely insist that the Middle East’s top issue is Iran’s nuclear program.


US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton annoyed Israel last week by saying the US would cope with a nuclear Iran by arming its allies in the Gulf and extending a “defence umbrella” over the region.


Minister of Israeli intelligence services, Dan Meridor, said that Clinton’s comments implied that the US was “already resigned” to Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.


Other senior US officials will visit the region later this week, including National Security Advisor James Jones, who is due to hold talks with Netanyahu, and Denis Ross, envoy to the Gulf states.


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