In Jerusalem, Mitchell promotes two states

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state before Israel commits to peace talks, Benjamin Netanyahu said.

"Israel expects the Palestinians to first recognize Israel as a Jewish state before talking about two states for two peoples," Israel’s prime minister told George Mitchell, President Obama’s Middle East envoy, during a meeting in Jerusalem on Thursday evening, a senior official in Netanyahu’s office told Israeli media.

In meetings with Israeli officials, Mitchell said that U.S. policy favors the creation of a Palestinian state.

Mitchell met with Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on Thursday following a meeting with President Shimon Peres and a Wednesday evening meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Mitchell also met with Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

"I reiterated to the foreign minister that U.S. policy favors, with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a two-state solution which will have a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel," Mitchell told reporters after meeting with Lieberman, who has rejected Israeli-Palestinian negotiations begun in 2007 at Annapolis, Md.

The Israeli government will have to formulate new ideas and a new approach to achieve peace with the Palestinians and Arab states in the region, Lieberman was quoted as telling Mitchell, in a statement released from the foreign minister’s office. Lieberman also said Israel would work to improve the economic situation for the Palestinians.

"We anticipate close cooperation and coordination with the U.S. administration," he said.

Lieberman raised the issue of the Iranian threat as a central problem for Israel and the entire region, as demonstrated by the arrest of terrorists in Egypt last week. "Iran with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles; Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip; and Hezbollah in Lebanon – this is the real problem. If we’re looking for a stable solution to the Palestinian problem, we must first of all stop the intensification and expansion of the Iranian threat," he told Mitchell, according to his office.

Mitchell met with Peres earlier on Thursday. "There is an opening point for promoting the political process.  No door to peace has been closed and I believe that this year is a decisive year in the Middle East.  We do not have time to waste," Peres told Mitchell.

Late Thursday night, Mitchell issued a statement through the State Department. "Special Envoy Mitchell held a series of meetings with senior Israeli officials on April 15 and 16," it said. "They discussed the full range of issues. Special Envoy Mitchell looks forward to working with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government toward comprehensive peace."

Earlier, Robert Wood, the State Department spokesman, said Mitchell made it clear that the Obama administration was still committed to a two-state solution and said sides should refrain from steps that "further inflame tensions in the region."

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