Obama: We Will Aggressively Seek Lasting Middle East Peace

U.S. President: Hamas must end rocket fire, Israel will complete withdrawal of forces from Gaza.

Natasha Mozgovaya Haaretz Service, Agencies
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Natasha Mozgovaya Haaretz Service, Agencies

President Barack Obama's newly minted Mideast envoy George Mitchell will arrive in Israel even before the Knesset elections on February 10, a senior government source said. According to Obama, it "will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors," he said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and told her Israel would not open the Gaza crossings without progress toward the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit

Obama on Thursday named former Sen. George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy, saying one of his key tasks would be ensuring that the cease-fire in Gaza lasts.

In a news conference at the U.S. State Department, Obama said the outline for a "durable cease-fire" in Gaza was clear.

"Hamas must end its rocket fire, Israel will complete the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza. The United States and our partners will support a credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime so that Hamas cannot rearm," the new president said in his first major speech on the region as since he took office on Tuesday.

One of Israel's aims in its recent 3-week offensive against Hamas in Gaza was to halt the smuggling of weapons into the coastal territory.

Obama also reaffirmed his commitment to reaching a peace for the Middle East.

"It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors," Obama said, adding that he would send Mitchell to the region soon.

He said that his administration will support a credible system of ending smuggling into Gaza.

The president added that he was deeply concerned by the loss of life among both Israelis and Palestinians, and by the suffering taking place in Gaza. He said his heart "goes out to civilians who are going without food, water or medical care."

He also said Gaza's borders should be opened to allow aid to come in, with appropriate monitoring.

The naming of Mitchell, a veteran international troubleshooter, to the role would signal that Obama was serious about carrying out his campaign pledge to engage early in his administration on the Middle East issue, analysts have said.

"He will be fully empowered at the negotiating table and he will sustain our focus on the goal of peace," Obama said at the news conference.

Best known for peacemaking efforts in Northern Ireland, the former Senate majority leader, 75, also has experience in the Middle East. Mitchell was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to find ways to halt Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Sallai Meridor, lauded Mitchell's appointment.

"As the United States and Israel continue to work jointly on achieving peace and stability in the Middle East, and of countering the common threat of terrorism and state sponsors of terror from acquiring nuclear weapons, we warmly welcome and congratulate Senator George Mitchell on his appointment as special envoy for Middle East peace," Meridor said.



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