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Obama ties Israel talks to ‘new era of engagement’

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama coupled his calls for expanded diplomatic outreach to his quest for peace for Israel and its neighbors.

"In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun," Obama said Tuesday night in a speech to both chambers of Congress that outlined plans for his new administration. "For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand. To seek progress towards a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort."

The speech did not mention Iran but Obama’s emphasis on the "negotiating table" reflects his pledge to reach out to Iran’s leadership in a bid to having it stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. 

"To meet the challenges of the 21st century — from terrorism to nuclear proliferation; from pandemic disease to cyber threats to crushing poverty — we will strengthen old alliances, forge new ones, and use all elements of our national power," he said.

The speech came the same day that his envoy, George Mitchell, had departed for another weeklong tour of the region. Mitchell’s first tour was to ascertain where the parties were after Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. His second trip appeared geared more toward substantive peacemaking.

"Mitchell will meet with senior officials to discuss the peace process as part of our ongoing efforts to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between Israel and its other Arab neighbors," a State Department statement said.

Robert Wood, the department’s spokesman, said separately that Mitchell’s itinerary included a stop in Turkey, which might signal greater U.S. engagement in the Israel-Syria talks that the Turks have brokered.

Mitchell also will join Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a March 2 summit in Egypt to raise money for postwar Gaza. Reports have said the U.S. will dedicate $900 million to rebuilding.

One of the "heroes" Obama introduced in his speech — a tradition in such presidential address to Congress — was Leonard Abess, a Jewish bank president in Miami who gave his $60 million bonus to his staff.

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