New push for Middle East peace talks

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has arrived in Israel on a visit aimed at breathing life into faltering Middle East peace talks.

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Gates is due to meet his Israeli counterpart, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, before holding talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US officials said.

The Pentagon chief’s talks in Israel and Jordan coincide with high-level visits by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and a delegation led by President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, James Jones.

The latest round of US diplomacy with Israel comes as tensions between the two allies rise, and after criticism from an Israeli minister over Washington’s stance on Iran’s nuclear drive.

‘Candid, positive’ talks

Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor said comments from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested Washington was “already resigned” to Iran gaining a nuclear weapon.

Special envoy George Mitchell arrived in Cairo yesterday, after holding “candid and positive” talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Sunday.

Mitchell, who also met Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv at the weekend, is expected to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak later today.

Egypt, which has been mediating between rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, and between Israel and Hamas for a prisoner swap that would release an Israeli soldier held in Gaza, is seen as key to encouraging Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

The Middle East tour is Mitchell’s fifth visit to the region since he was appointed by US President Barack Obama to help revive foundering Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Flurry of diplomatic activity

US President Barack Obama is determined to reach a comprehensive peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbours in order to guarantee “stability, security and prosperity” in the region, Mitchell said.

“If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace.

“We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavour.”

The flurry of US diplomatic activity comes amid mounting friction between Israel and the US over Washington’s demand for a halt to Jewish settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, including east Jerusalem.

Israeli PM Netanyahu said the US envoy’s visits reflected the “strong and broad relationship between Israel and the United States” but acknowledged there are disagreements.