Washington wants stalled Middle East peace talks to resume soon and wrap up quickly, United States envoy George Mitchell told Israeli leaders on Tuesday, as it was announced he would make his first visit to Syria.
Mitchell, whose visit comes just days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to outline his cabinet's peace policy, sought to play down rising tensions between the two close allies over the U.S. peace drive.
"We all share an obligation to create the conditions for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations," Mitchell said ahead of talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
"Amicable and positive" meetings
"We're now engaged in serious discussions with our Israeli and Palestinian and regional partners to support these efforts," said Mitchell, who met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
According to Netanyahu's office, a two-hour private meeting with Mitchell was "amicable and positive."
Israeli military radio reported that Netanyahu ran through policy proposals he plans to float "aimed at creating a positive atmosphere in Washington towards these ideas."
Netanyahu has yet to publicly embrace the principle of a Palestinian state, and the Israeli press has been filled with speculation that he might finally do so in the speech he is due to give on Sunday.
The envoy quizzed Barak on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, illegal under international law and the cause of a major rift between the United States and Israel.
Mitchell, who arrived in Israel accompanied by Frederick Hoff, his adviser on Syria, also pressed Barak to reopen talks with its eastern neighbor.
He will meet with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad on Wednesday.
We all share an obligation to create the conditions for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations
U.S. envoy George Mitchell
Mitchell said on Monday that President Barack Obama had told him to work for an "immediate" resumption of the peace talks with the Palestinians, which restarted under U.S. stewardship in November 2007 but were suspended during the Gaza war over the new year.
He also reiterated that Washington sees the creation of a Palestinian state as the "only viable political solution" to the decades-old conflict.
Another major bone of contention that has driven a rift between the U.S. and Israel is that of Israeli settlements.
Obama's administration has repeatedly called for a complete halt to all settlement activity, including building to accommodate population increases.
Netanyahu's largely right-wing government vigorously opposes this and would probably collapse if the premier caved in to Washington's demands, analysts in Israel say.
Tensions between the key allies have jumped to levels unseen in nearly two decades as Obama has pushed to jump-start the moribund peace process, raising fears in Israel that Washington may reduce its support as it seeks to improve relations with the Muslim world.
"Unbreakable" bond with Israel
In a speech to the Muslim world last Thursday, Obama reiterated Washington's "unbreakable" bond with Israel, but vowed not to turn his back on Palestinian aspirations and repeated his call for a halt to Jewish settlements.
Mitchell sought to play down disagreements on Tuesday, saying U.S. commitment to Israeli security -- the Jewish state's top concern -- remained "unshakeable" and that "the United States and Israel are and will remain close allies and friends."
But he also reiterated that "Israelis and Palestinians have a responsibility to meet their obligations under the roadmap." That was a reference to the 2003 international peace plan that called for Israel to halt settlements and Palestinians to stop violence.
On Monday the White House said Obama and Netanyahu had "constructive" talks by phone ahead of the prime minister's expected speech.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said "as part of the president's commitment to work to advance a comprehensive peace in the region," Mitchell will visit Damascus on Friday and Saturday following a stop in Beirut on Thursday.
Syria expressed renewed readiness on Tuesday to resume preliminary contacts through Turkish go-betweens on re-launching U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel.
Israelis and Palestinians have a responsibility to meet their obligations under the roadmap