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George Mitchell visit to Middle East put on hold

Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell delays departure to region amid tensions between US and Israel

Image Credit:AP
Special US Middle East peace ambassador George Mitchell.

Washington: With US-Israeli tensions at an all-time high, Middle East peace ambassador George Mitchell has delayed his departure to the region, where he is scheduled to hold separate talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, a US official said.

Mitchell had been scheduled to depart Washington on Monday night, two officials said. They said Mitchell now aimed to leave on Tuesday.

They also said Mitchell might go straight to Moscow for talks among the quartet of Middle East peace mediators: the European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations.

The Obama administration's fierce denunciation of Israel over its plans to build new colonies last week has ignited a firestorm in US Congress and among powerful pro-Israel interest groups who say the criticism of America's top Middle East ally was misplaced.

Since the controversy erupted, a bipartisan parade of influential lawmakers and interest groups has taken aim at the administration's decision to publicly condemn Israel for its announcement of new Jewish colonies in east of Occupied Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting on Tuesday and then openly vent bitter frustration on Friday.

Reaction to the administration was particularly intense from pro-Israel groups. At least 10 lawmakers have offered concerns over the criticism, and more are expected to weigh in after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton upbraided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the housing announcement in a tense and lengthy phone call on Friday and White House officials repeated the criticism on Sunday's talk shows.

The State Department on Monday said it was still awaiting a formal response from Israel to Clinton's call and, while repeating elements of the criticism, stressed that the US commitment to Israel's security remains "unshakable".

However, spokesman P.J. Crowley also said a lot is riding on whether Israel agrees to take steps suggested by Clinton to underscore its commitment to the peace process and strong relations with America.

"We will evaluate the implications of this once we hear back from the Israelis and see how they respond to our concerns," he told reporters.