JERUSALEM - U.S. President Barack Obama's special peace envoy sought on Thursday an early relaunch of Israeli-Palestinian talks, but Israel said Washington's goal of comprehensive peace was an illusion.
With wider Muslim-Jewish tension brewing over access to holy sites in Jerusalem, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas struggling to restore his credibility and Islamist Hamas ascendant in the Gaza Strip, the omens for U.S. envoy George Mitchell's trip were not propitious.
We are going to continue with our efforts to achieve an early relaunch of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, he told reporters as he met Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem.
Resuming talks suspended 10 months ago was essential for a comprehensive regional treaty involving Israel and neighbors that include Syria and Lebanon. Obama believes there is no alternative if the region wants peace, Mitchell said.
Desultory peace talks were derailed by the Gaza war. Obama has made their resumption a priority. He invested more political capital last month by arranging a meeting of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in New York, but with scant results.
U.S. officials said Mitchell was back with a sense of urgency but no expectation of a breakthrough from this visit.
Mitchell met Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who announced on a morning radio show he would tell Mitchell there was no chance of a comprehensive peace deal for many years.
PEACE AN ILLUSION
I will tell him clearly, there are many conflicts in the world that haven't reached a comprehensive solution and people learned to live with it, the Israel foreign minister said.
Whoever says that it's possible to reach in the coming years a comprehensive agreement ... simply doesn't understand the reality, Lieberman said in a radio interview. He's spreading illusions and in the end brings disappointment.
A Lieberman aide later said he and Mitchell had a very good one-on-one meeting for more than an hour and agreed that neither would speak to the news media about what transpired.
The Palestinians say Mitchell must realize that Lieberman has made it clear why there will be no relaunch of negotiations any time soon, Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters from Rome, where Abbas is on an official visit.
We need to hear a response to this statement, from Mitchell and from the American administration who are making efforts to salvage the peace process while faced with an Israeli government which destroys all those American efforts.
King Abdullah of Jordan, whose country has made peace with Israel and who plays an important role in advancing the peace process with the Palestinians, was quoted on Thursday as saying in an interview we are sliding back into the darkness.
The sense of pessimism was deepened by the political weakness of Abbas, who has angered Palestinians by agreeing under U.S. pressure not to push for action on a U.N. war crimes report critical of Israeli conduct of the Gaza war.
Abbas aides admit this was a mistake and say he will explain everything in a broadcast to the nation. Support for the 74-year-old leader has been badly damaged. Critics say he should resign and in the Gaza Strip he is branded a traitor.
Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas asked Egypt to postpone a meeting with Abba's Fatah movement to sign a reconciliation pact. It was supposed to take place in Cairo on Oct 24-26, but Hamas said Abbas's decision had sabotaged the atmosphere.
Unlike Abbas and Fatah, Hamas is enjoying a wave of popularity for securing the release of 20 female prisoners from Israel last week in return for a video showing that the Israeli soldier it has held captive for three years is alive and well.
Like Lieberman, Hamas does not believe in a comprehensive peace leading to a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It proposes a long-term truce but has no intention of surrendering its claim to all of formerly British-ruled Palestine.
Jordan's King Abdullah told the Israeli daily Haaretz he wanted to relay a message to the Israeli people that it should disavow the illusion that the status quo can be perpetuated.
He warned that Jerusalem, which the Israeli government says is the non-negotiable, non-divisible capital of Israel, is a tinderbox that could ignite fire throughout the Islamic world.
Fifteen years after his late father Hussein concluded a peace treaty with Israel, he said, our relationship is getting colder. Jordan and Egypt are the only Arab nations to have signed peace treaties with Israel.
Palestinian leaders on Thursday called for a general strike over disputed Jerusalem and warned of further protests on the Muslim day of Friday prayers at al-Aqsa mosque.
Israel say it is not taking seriously recent Palestinian warnings that a general uprising is about to break out.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah; Editing by Jon Hemming)