JERUSALEM – Washington's special envoy to the Mideast, tasked with jump-starting flagging peace talks, will huddle Thursday with Benjamin Netanyahu, a vocal opponent of the negotiations, for the first time since he was designated to lead Israel's next government.
The Obama administration has dispatched George Mitchell to the region for the second time in its first month, an indication of the new U.S. president's determination to press a resolution of the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Hillary Clinton is due in the area next week on her first trip since being appointed the new U.S. secretary of state.
Mitchell hopes to re-energize stalled talks, over the objections of Netanyahu, who thinks the latest round of U.S.-backed negotiations was a waste of time and wants to promote Palestinian prosperity instead of Palestinian statehood.
The Palestinians reject Netanyahu's approach and want Israel to halt settlement construction in the West Bank. On that point, the Palestinians are in accord with Mitchell, who, as head of an international commission to investigate violence in the Middle East, urged Israel back in 2001 to freeze settlement expansion. He also called on Palestinians to rein in militants.
Netanyahu is an outspoken champion of expanding the settlements where nearly 290,000 Jews live, up about 50 percent since 2001.
Despite his own hawkish leanings, Netanyahu knows the international community — and foremost, Israel's chief ally, the U.S. — would like to see a moderate coalition lineup. But his efforts to woo moderate parties that would trade land for peace have not been going well.
The Kadima Party, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Labor Party have rejected his overtures, in part because of his opposition to peacemaking. Netanyahu's alternative is to team up with other nationalist and religious parties in a narrow alliance that could easily break apart over conflicting domestic agendas or under U.S. pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu is familiar with such volatility: His first government, which had dismal relations with the Palestinians, fell apart a decade ago after the U.S. coerced him to cede control of large parts of the biblical West Bank town of Hebron to Palestinian control.
After meeting with Israeli leaders, Mitchell heads to the West Bank on Friday to meet with officials of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. Besides discussing the political developments in Israel, the two sides will also discuss the need to rebuild the Gaza Strip after Israel's recent offensive there and efforts to reconcile feuding Palestinian factions.
The Palestinians hope to raise $2.8 billion at an international donor's conference in Egypt on Monday, where the U.S. is expected to pledge $900 million.
But a power-sharing deal between the Islamic militants of Hamas who rule Gaza and the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank, is seen as key to moving ahead with the reconstruction. The international community shuns the violently anti-Israel Hamas and won't send money directly to it.
Hamas and Fatah representatives are meeting in Cairo this week for Egyptian-mediated talks. But earlier rounds of reconciliation efforts failed, and the two sides remain bitterly divided nearly two years after Hamas overran Gaza. In an effort to improve the negotiating climate, both sides announced on Wednesday that they would each release political prisoners from the opposing faction.
There was no information on how many detainees would be freed. On Tuesday, Fatah released 42 Hamas prisoners in the West Bank.
Separately, Egyptian mediators are trying to shore up the shaky Jan. 18 cease-fire between Israel and Hamas with a long-term truce. Efforts have stalled over Israel's recent insistence that Hamas first release a long-held Israeli soldier.
Low-level violence has marred the cease-fire, and on Thursday, militants fired two rockets at southern Israel, the military said. One landed in the yard of a home, but no injuries were reported in either incident.
Separately, Israeli negotiator Ofer Dekel was headed for Cairo on Thursday to discuss a possible prisoner swap to win freedom for Sgt. Gilad Schalit, seized by Hamas-affiliated militants in June 2006. Hamas wants hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released, including many involved in deadly attacks on Israelis.