Mitchell's message: U.S. to focus efforts on Gaza cease-fire
U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell is due to arrive in the country Wednesday, and is expected to tell Israeli and Palestinian officials the Obama administration wants to focus on stabilizing the Israel-Gaza cease-fire, rebuilding the Gaza Strip, and countering arms smuggling into Gaza with the help of Israel, Egypt and the European Union.
The Obama administration intends to be involved intensively in the situation in the Middle East, particularly on the humanitarian effort in Gaza and the establishment of an orderly mechanism for the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority as soon as possible, Israeli diplomats have been told. The United States is also interested in looking into the role American aid can play.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday Israel had the right to defend itself against Qassam rockets.
"We support Israel's right to self-defense," she said. "The rocket barrages which are getting closer and closer to populated areas cannot go unanswered."
In her first press conference since assuming her new post, Clinton also blamed Hamas for Tuesday's attack on an Israel Defense Forces patrol along the Gaza border. A roadside bomb exploded near the Kissufim crossing, killing an IDF soldier and wounding three others.
"It is regrettable that the Hamas leadership apparently believes that it is in their interest to provoke the right of self-defense instead of building a better future for the people of Gaza," Clinton said.
Mitchell, along with Lt. Gen. Paul Selva and top-ranking U.S. diplomat David Hale, is scheduled to meet Wednesday with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. On Thursday, Mitchell will meet Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin and Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
The U.S. delegation will then travel to Ramallah, where they will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
After completing his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Mitchell will depart for Amman.
In addition to being one of the issues Mitchell plans to discuss, arms smuggling in Gaza is also on the agenda in Washington, Cairo and several European capitals.
Barak is scheduled to travel to Washington Wednesday night for talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on arms smuggling, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana arrived in Israel for talks Tuesday, after discussing the issue with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Cairo Tuesday. Aboul Gheit warned the Europeans against sending a flotilla of ships to counter smuggling off the coast of Gaza.
"You must understand Arab and Muslim feelings," he said. "I urge you to look and consider this ... because it might have consequences in Palestinian and Arab relations with you."
The Egyptian minister said Israel, not Europe, should undertake the effort to stop the smuggling.
The Foreign Ministry began intensive talks this week with a number of European countries over how to deal with weapons smuggling. The ministry created a special team to deal with the smuggling issue, headed by Yaakov Hadas, its deputy director general of the Middle East and peace process division. This week Hadas and ministry deputy director general Yossi Gal will fly to London to discuss a British proposal to deploy naval vessels to monitor the s muggling routes to the Gaza Strip as well as the exchange of intelligence regarding smuggling.
The ministry's deputy director general for Western Europe, Rafi Barak, is to set off for Paris, Berlin, Rome, Copenhagen, Madrid and The Hague to discuss ways in which the countries could help stop the smuggling. France has already announced it will deploy a frigate in the Red Sea to monitor shipping routes. Italy has offered satellite equipment to locate underground tunnels, and Germany is willing to send engineering experts to Egypt.