US envoy: Obama committed to sovereign Palestinian state

US envoy: Obama committed to sovereign Palestinian stateRamallah  - President Barack Obama is committed to the establishment of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state and regards this as a "national interest" of the US, his envoy said Friday in Ramallah.

"This conflict has gone on for far too long. The people of this region should no longer have to wait for the just peace," George Mitchell told reporters, as he wrapped up his first visit to the region since the formation of a new Israeli government that has refused to openly endorse a two-state solution to the conflict.

Mitchell, who on Thursday held his first talks in Israel since the government was sworn in in March, travelled the short distance from Jerusalem to the central West Bank city for talks with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad.

"A two-state solution is the only solution," he stated after his talks with the Palestinian president and acting prime minister.

Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Abbas, said the new Israeli government of hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must accept that two-state solution - and cease all settlement construction in the occupied West Bank as well as house demolitions in East Jerusalem - or holding a peace process with it would be "almost impossible."

"Until the Netanyahu government unequivocally affirms its support for the two-state solution ... Palestinians have no partner for peace," he said.

Abbas reiterated to Mitchell the Palestinian commitment to both the 2003 "road map" and the Annapolis understandings, Erekat told reporters after the parley.

The Netanyahu government has said it is bound only to the road map, but not to the Annapolis understandings of November 2007.

The Annapolis process launched by the previous administration of George W Bush calls for immediate negotiations on all of the core issues of the conflict and set a one-year deadline for signing a final peace deal. The internationally-sponsored road map by contrast lists a hosts of confidence-building measures the sides must take before beginning such "final-status" negotiations.

Although also the road map calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state, eventually, Netanyahu, of the hardline, but mainstream Likud party, has thus far refused to openly express support for this end goal.

Instead, in his talks with Mitchell in Jerusalem late Thursday, he demanded the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, even before peace talks are resumed.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's outspoken and controversial new foreign minister of the ultra-nationalist Israel Beiteinu coalition party, also told Mitchell that past approaches to the conflict with the Palestinians, such as the 1993 interim Oslo peace accords, had failed and that "new ideas" were needed.

Erekat earlier slammed Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel's Jewish character as a precondition for starting peace talks.

"The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) has already recognized the state of Israel. Netanyahu refuses to even mention a Palestinian state," he said in a written statement from his office, charging that "Netanyahu's new 'condition' serves no other purpose than to stall progress towards negotiations."

The Israeli Ma'ariv daily Friday also quoted a senior US diplomat as voicing concern that Netanyahu's demand was a bid to buy time.

Netanyahu and Lieberman's offices described Thursday's talks with Mitchell as "positive," but observers spoke of underlying tensions in the relations between the two new Israeli and US leaderships.

The Netanyahu government has hinted that countering what it calls the threat posed by Iran and its radical Islamist proxies in the Middle East - Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza - has more urgency than solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the Obama Administration seems to reject this. The Israeli Ha'aretz daily reported Friday that Obama has adopted a policy which regards a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as essential for stability in the Middle East and for reining in Iran's influence in the region.

Ha'aretz said Obama wants to see parallel Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace talks. It gave no source. Both Netanyahu and Lieberman however have rejected any concessions regarding the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

A senior Israel government official told Ma'ariv that the Obama Administration would give Israel some six to eight weeks to consolidate its position regarding the peace process - until Netanyahu is expected to travel to Washington at the end of May.

Lieberman Friday told Russia's special envoy to the Middle East, Alexander Saltanov, that Israel would present its policy toward the Palestinian issue to the international community once it had completed consolidating it, a statement from his office said. (dpa)

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