JERUSALEM - Seeking to calm a public spat with Israel, U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell assured its leaders yesterday that American support for the Jewish state was "unshakable." But he said the Obama administration stood by a goal the new Israeli government has yet to embrace: an independent Palestinian state.
Mitchell is visiting Israel and the West Bank to build on President Obama's commitment, spelled out last week in an address to the Muslim world, to work aggressively to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mitchell will go later this week to Lebanon and Syria, his first visit to those countries as special Middle East envoy, to try to win Arab support for the initiative and to encourage peace talks between Syria and Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at odds with the Obama administration over its insistence on halting Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank. U.S. officials have made it clear they expect a freeze, which Netanyahu rejects, as the first step toward reviving talks with the Palestinians.
Sparring over the issue has burst into the open as Obama, after years in which Washington sided consistently with Israel, tries to reposition the United States as an honest broker in the eyes of Palestinians and other Arabs. In recent days, U.S. officials have sounded worried that they might be losing Israel's trust.
Israeli newspapers have been quoting aides to the prime minister as saying the U.S. pressure is aimed at bringing down his government. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told aides that administration officials assured him there was no such plot.
Obama repeated his commitment to Israel's security in a phone conversation with Netanyahu on Monday night, the White House said.
Mitchell emphasized the U.S.-Israeli bond yesterday.
"We come here to talk not as adversaries and in disagreement, but as friends in discussion," Mitchell said, standing at Netanyahu's side.
U.S.-brokered talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been suspended since January. Netanyahu, who took office March 31, has offered to revive them. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says there is no point as long as Netanyahu refuses to discuss the goal of Palestinian independence.
Mitchell said he was trying to "create the conditions for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations." The goal, he said, is "a comprehensive peace in the Middle East . . . including a Palestinian state, side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel."