Obama: Mideast peace envoy to engage 'vigorously'
Wading quickly into Middle East diplomacy, Obama dispatched Mitchell, a veteran international trouble-shooter, to tackle a conflict the new president's predecessor George W. Bush had been widely criticized for neglecting for much of his tenure.
"The cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests. It's important to me personally," Obama said after a White House meeting with Mitchell, who was due to head to the region later on Monday.
"The charge that Sen. Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress. When I say progress -- not just photo ops but progress that is concretely felt by the people on the ground," Obama told reporters.
Mitchell, a former US senator and a mediator who helped to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict, was named by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week to lead US efforts to end the six-decade conflict.
His weeklong trip, which will take him to Egypt, the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain, is aimed at shoring up a fragile ceasefire that ended the 22-day Gaza offensive and reinvigorating the stalled peace process.
Critics faulted the Bush administration for what they viewed as its relative disengagement from Middle East peacemaking until its last year, when a US-backed effort to strike an agreement by the end of 2008 failed.
Obama has made clear the Middle East conflict will be a high priority as he tries to repair a US image battered by the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's perceived "cowboy diplomacy."
NO OVERNIGHT SOLUTION
Obama has made a deliberate effort to show he is engaged from the start, telephoning Middle East leaders on his first full day in office on Wednesday and attending the announcement of Mitchell's appointment at the State Department a day later.
"It is not something we're going to be able to do overnight, but I am absolutely confident that if the United States is engaged in a consistent way and in an early fashion, that we could make genuine progress," Obama said.
Mitchell will also seek to address humanitarian needs of the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Gaza and to speed the reopening of border crossings into the area.
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