Olmert to Mitchell: No deal on Gaza crossings until Shalit issue resolved
Peres: I am sure George Mitchell will contribute greatly to the peace process at this demanding time.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell Wednesday afternoon that the border crossings into the Gaza Strip will not reopen permanently unless the issue of captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit is resolved.
Following their meeting, senior officials in Olmert's bureau said that Mitchell had announced upon arriving that he had come mainly to gather information regarding regional issues. "Mitchell did not exert any pressure nor did he convey a negative message during the meeting," the officials said.
Olmert spoke with Mitchell about the situation in Gaza, where Israeli forces waged a three-week offensive in efforts to stop Palestinian rocket fire up until last week. Olmert told the visiting U.S. official that the stability of the cease-fire in Gaza will be determined by two parameters: the first - a complete halt to rocket fire into Israel from the Strip, and the second - an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza. Any violation of these two conditions will be met with a response, the prime minister said.
Mitchell's Jerusalem meetings were the second stop on his planned tour of the region, following talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo earlier in the day.
The former senator was dispatched by U.S. President Barack Obama with orders to "start by listening."
Mitchell's trip will also take him to the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain. He said he would later report his findings directly to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Earlier Wednesday, Mitchell met privately with President Shimon Peres. "I am delighted to receive an old friend and a person very capable of making peace," Peres said ahead of their meeting. "I am sure that Senator Mitchell will contribute greatly to the peace process at this demanding time."
Peres addressed Mitchell directly, saying "you are for peace, and we are for peace. You are against terror, and we are against terror. We should work together fully and your success will be our success."
Following their meeting, Peres said "I assure you, there is no contradiction between the stances of the United States and Israel. Both the United States and Israel want peace and believe that we must fight against terror, chiefly Hamas and Iran. We must fight terrorism and simultaneously advance peace. Israel will not allow Hamas to destroy the chances for peace, and we will work to cultivate the goodwill that is necessary to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians."
Mitchell tells Mubarak: Extending Gaza truce is 'critical'
On the first leg of his Middle East tour earlier Wednesday, Mitchell told Mubarak it was critical to consolidate a shaky cease-fire in Gaza.
"It is of critical importance that the ceasefire be extended and consolidated, and we support Egypt's continuing efforts in that regard. The United States is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region," Mitchell said at a news conference after meeting with Mubarak in Cairo.
But new violence between Israel and the Palestinians cast a shadow over Mitchell's arrival, as Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza smuggling tunnels in retaliation for a Palestinian bombing that killed an Israel Defense Forces soldier.
"I look forward to returning to the region in the very near future to continue this effort," Mitchell said. Western and regional diplomats said that while Mitchell was expected to meet Palestinian officials, he would not have direct contacts with Hamas.
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.
Clinton: Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket fire
Meanwhile, 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 was 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 smuggling 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.