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US envoy to meet Abbas

JERUSALEM, Apr 17 – US President Barack Obama’s envoy to the Middle East was set to meet Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank on Friday after pressing a two-state solution to sceptical officials in Israel.

"US policy favours, with the respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a two-state solution," special envoy George Mitchell told reporters Thursday after talks with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has refused to endorse the US-sponsored peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Lieberman’s response was that "the peace process has reached a dead end" and "the new (Israeli) government will have to formulate new ideas and approaches," his office said.

Israel’s new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitchell met later in Tel Aviv.

"Israel expects the Palestinians to recognise the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people," the premier’s office said he told the US Middle East envoy.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) promptly rejected the demand. "This is an obstacle on the path to peace and the creation of two states," said Abbas’s spokesman.

The PA has already rejected such a demand in the past, saying it recognises Israel within the country’s borders before the 1967 Middle East war when the Israelis seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Recognition of a Jewish state would for the Palestinians amount to abandoning the right to return of Palestinian refugees.

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Abbas, who will meet Mitchell in Ramallah, has insisted the new Israeli cabinet commit itself to a two-state solution before the two sides can resume talks.

"Israel does not seek to rule over the Palestinians but must make sure the political process with them does not lead to a second ‘Hamastan’ within the country that would threaten Jerusalem and the coastal plain," Netanyahu said.

He was referring to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Lieberman’s comments highlighted the risk Israel could be on a collision course with its most important ally, as Washington insists on the principle of a Palestinian state and Netanyahu refuses to endorse the plan.

Mitchell flew in to Israel on Wednesday on his first trip to the region since Netanyahu became the head of a largely right-wing cabinet, sparking concern over the fate of the troubled peace talks.

Underscoring the divide with Washington, Interior Minister Eli Yishai told reporters: "In the present circumstances, one has to work not for two states for two people, but for two economies for two people."

Lieberman later told his visiting Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos that the government was still formulating its policies, which would be based on the principles of halting rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza, ending Iran’s controversial nuclear programme and improving the Palestinian economy.

Netanyahu says that the economy in the occupied West Bank must improve before any other steps are taken in the faltering Middle East peace process.

Lieberman — slammed by critics as a "racist" for his anti-Arab diatribes — has also sparked concerns by declaring when he assumed office that the new cabinet was not bound by the US-backed 2007 agreement to relaunch talks with the Palestinians.

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Israel has committed itself to the principle of a Palestinian state under the 2003 international "roadmap" for peace, which included a series of steps for Israelis and Palestinians to follow, eventually resulting in negotiations over core issues and the creation of a Palestinian state.

The plan has made little progress since its launch by the Middle East Quartet — the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.

Mitchell invited Netanyahu to meet with the US president in May but did not provide a date, an Israeli statement said.

Netanyahu had been earlier invited to meet with Obama on May 11 but had declined saying it clashed with a visit to his country by Pope Benedict XVI.

Israeli media has speculated that Netanyahu could visit the United States in early May at the invitation of a pro-Israeli lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But Obama is not available during this period.

Mitchell, a former US senator, played a key role in reaching the 1998 Good Friday accords that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

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