U.S. Mideast envoy says Gaza ceasefire critical

CAIRO  – The U.S. Middle East envoy, dispatched by President Barack Obama with orders to “start by listening,” said on Wednesday it was critical to consolidate a Gaza ceasefire after Israel’s offensive. Former Senator George Mitchell met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the first leg of his week-long tour as the new administration tries to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

“It is of critical importance that the ceasefire be extended and consolidated, and we support Egypt’s continuing efforts in that regard. The United States is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region,” Mitchell told a news conference after meeting with Mubarak in Cairo.

Hamas and Israel declared separate ceasefires this month to end Israel’s 22-day offensive in Gaza, launched with the declared aim of stopping cross-border rocket fire, and are negotiating through Egyptian mediators on a longer-term truce. The fighting killed 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

Obama, wading quickly into Middle East diplomacy, said on Tuesday the time was ripe to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and that his administration would adopt a more comprehensive approach in its ties with the Muslim world.

Mitchell, who helped to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict, was named by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week to lead U.S. efforts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Mitchell’s tour will also take him to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain. He said he would later report his findings directly to Obama and Clinton.

“I look forward to returning to the region in the very near future to continue this effort,” Mitchell said. Western and regional diplomats said that while Mitchell was expected to meet Palestinian officials, he would not have direct contacts with Hamas.

Obama has made clear the Middle East conflict will be a high priority as he tries to repair a U.S. image battered by the war in Iraq.

Critics faulted the Bush administration for what they viewed as its relative disengagement from Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking until its last year, when it tried but failed to mediate an agreement by the end of 2008.

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