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Sun 26 Jul 2009 07:24 AM

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US Defense Secretary in Mideast for peace talks

Robert Gates heads to the region to revive faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

US Defense Secretary in Mideast for peace talks
PEACE TALKS: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. (AFP)

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates headed to the Middle East on Sunday as part of a broader diplomatic push by President Barack Obama to breath life into faltering peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, US officials said.

The Pentagon chief's talks in Israel and Jordan coincide with high-level diplomatic visits the same week by the US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, and a delegation led by Obama's national security advisor, James Jones.

The flurry of diplomacy also is expected to focus on Iran's disputed nuclear program, as the Obama administration had suggested any outreach with Tehran would have to wait until after the June 12 presidential elections.

Jones is scheduled to lead a delegation to Israel and the West Bank Tuesday through Thursday "to discuss the broad range of issues in our relationships with Israel and the Palestinian Authority," a White House official said.

"This trip builds on discussions special envoy Mitchell and Secretary Gates will have a few days earlier."

Gates was due to meet on Monday with his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, before holding talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defense officials said.

He was scheduled to later travel to Jordan, where he was expected to discuss regional peace efforts, Iran and the US drawdown in Iraq among other issues with his Jordanian counterpart and King Abdullah II.

The round of US diplomacy with Israel comes amid tensions between the two allies and criticism from an Israeli minister over Washington's stance on Iran's nuclear drive.

Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor last week said comments from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested Washington was "already resigned" to Iran gaining a nuclear weapon.

But a senior defense official told reporters Washington shared Israel's concerns over Tehran's controversial nuclear program.

Israel, the United States and other Western country fear the program is a cover to produce nuclear weapons, a charge Iran denies, saying it is aimed instead at peaceful use of atomic energy.

"I don't think there's distance on how serious we're taking that challenge," the official said.

The Israelis were not opposed to Obama's bid to open a dialogue with Iran but were pessimistic about prospects for success, the official said.

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