RAMALLAH, West Bank- U.S. envoy George Mitchell assured the Palestinians on Wednesday of Washington's commitment to a state of their own, calling its establishment the only viable solution to their conflict with Israel.

Mitchell, speaking after talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, urged both sides to meet their obligations under a 2003 peace road map that commits Israel to halting settlement expansion and Palestinians to reining in militants.

U.S. President Barack Obama had made it clear the only viable resolution to this conflict is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, Mitchell said.

His comments highlighted a rare rift in U.S.-Israeli relations. Netanyahu has not publicly endorsed Palestinian statehood and has said construction will continue in existing settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Reiterating remarks he made in talks with Israeli leaders on Tuesday, Mitchell said in the West Bank city of Ramallah that Washington was seeking prompt resumption and early conclusion of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

We are now engaged in serious discussions with Israelis, Palestinians and other regional partners to support this effort, he added, before continuing the latest leg of his mission on a tour taking him to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

Speaking later after meeting Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Mitchell said Washington sought a comprehensive regional peace which not only involves Israel and the Palestinians, but Syrians, the Lebanese and all the surrounding countries.


Abbas, after his talks with Mitchell, made no comment to reporters. The Palestinian leader has said talks with Israel will be useless unless Netanyahu accepts a two-state solution and freezes settlements.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said in a statement the United States had made clear its intention to reinvigorate Middle East peace talks, as well as its expectation that both parties implement their obligations under the road map.

He said Israel's failure to fulfill its obligations under existing agreements had undermined the credibility of the peace process.

Obama's emphasis on meeting obligations was an important litmus test of fairness and balance, Erekat said.

An aide to Abbas said the U.S. position was encouraging but Israel's position was obscure and disappointing.

Netanyahu, who leads a conservative government that could face collapse if he halts settlement construction, is scheduled to set out his position in a speech on Sunday.

While Mitchell visited the West Bank, Netanyahu's security cabinet met in Jerusalem to discuss a possible easing of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, territory controlled by Hamas Islamists opposed to U.S. peace efforts.

An official statement said the forum examined additional ways to make life easier for the Palestinian population in Gaza and at the same time safeguarding Israeli security interests.

But the statement gave no indication whether more goods would be allowed into the Gaza Strip through Israeli border crossings as the United States and European countries have urged.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; editing by Douglas Hamilton)

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