President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy began the new administrations first mission to the troubled region on Tuesday as Egypt's top diplomat expressed hope that a deal on a permanent Gaza truce will be reached in the first week of February. Former Senate majority leader George J Mitchell was to meet with Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit later Tuesday in Cairo and hold talks with President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday.
The US decision to dispatch a presidential envoy so early in the administration reflected Obama's intention to take a more active approach to the Israel-Palestinian peace process than his predecessor did.
Earlier Tuesday, Aboul Gheit said a firm truce deal on Gaza would be followed by talks on Palestinian reconciliation by the third week of February and a conference on rebuilding the battered strip by the end of the month.
The timeline was the first indication Egypt believed it has made headway in mediating between rival Palestinian factions. The Palestinians have been bitterly divided, with the militant group Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and the more moderate Fatah dominant in the West Bank.
Egypt has pushed for a lasting truce in the Gaza Strip following Israel's 22-day offensive to stop Hamas' rocket attacks on southern Israel and has hosted delegations from Israel and the many Palestinian factions the latest over the weekend in Cairo. Aboul Gheit said the talks made progress but didn't elaborate. Aboul Gheit said talks with Palestinian factions in Cairo "witnessed positive developments" and added he hoped "an agreement on national reconciliation will be achieved in the third week of February." Talks on Gaza's reconstruction can begin "at the end" of the month, he added. Cairo hosts a reconstruction conference Feb. 28.
Egypt likely wants a firm truce before Israel's Feb. 10 elections.
In an interview with Al-Arabiya television on Monday, Obama said he felt it important to "get engaged right away" in the Mideast. He said he directed Mitchell to talk to "all the major parties involved" and that his administration would craft an approach after that. Obama added that he's told Mitchell to "start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating." European Union's Javier Solana was also in Egypt as part of an international push to cement Gaza's cease-fire. Solana welcomed Mitchell's appointment and said it will "create a new constructive dynamic."
The EU has stepped up humanitarian aid to Gaza Strip's 1.4 million residents but Solana warned that "construction and deconstruction cannot go on indefinitely" the "only solution is to have a political process" in Gaza.
The rival Palestinian sides met briefly in Cairo on Monday the first such meeting since Hamas threw Fatah out of Gaza in a violent June 2007 coup. From Gaza, Hamas was increasingly launching rockets into southern Israel, which prompted the devastating 22-day Israeli assault on the strip.
The Israeli offensive killed 1,285 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were also killed during the fighting.
The Palestinian divide is also hindering reconstruction plans, as Israel, the US and the EU all consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization and refuse to funnel reconstruction money to it. But in a statement Tuesday, Hamas' Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh denied the militant group wants the reconstruction funds and supports proposals to have Arab countries oversee the process. "We are not keen on receiving the reconstruction money and we don't seek it, Haniyeh said. "What we care about is reassurances that this money will be used in reconstruction and ending the misery" in Gaza.