New Mideast Envoy Off To Israel

President Barack Obama looks on as Middle East envoy George Mitchell speaks at the State Department in Washington, Jan. 22, 2009.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
The newly appointed U.S. envoy to the Middle East is headed to the region in his first full week on the job, an indication of the urgency with which President Barack Obama intends to tackle the decades-old conflict.

George Mitchell is due to arrive in Israel on Wednesday, and he will also visit the West Bank, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger.

Israel's cabinet described Mitchell's upcoming visit as a positive sign. Officials welcomed deeper U.S. involvement in the peace process with the Palestinians. But, reports Berger, many Israeli analysts believe Mitchell's appointment could signal a shift away from the pro-Israel policies of President Bush.

Mitchell is due to meet the European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Jerusalem this week, as both men join international efforts to cement a permanent cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.

The move comes as the EU is stepping up humanitarian aid to ease the suffering of Gaza Strip civilians.

The EU's top diplomat also holds talks Tuesday with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

The Israeli assault meant to crush Hamas rocket squads ended Jan. 17 with an estimated 1,300 Palestinians dead.

Meanwhile, Israel's prime minister said Sunday that special legal teams would defend Israeli soldiers against potential war crimes charges stemming from civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip, promising the country would fully back those who fought in the three-week offensive.

At talks Sunday in Cairo aimed at solidifying the temporary unilateral cease-fires being observed by both Israel and Hamas, the Islamic group offered a one-year truce to Israel, including the reopening of border crossings to allow vital supplies into Gaza, said Hamas official Ayman Taha.

Taha said Israel offered an 18-month truce, which Hamas rejected. Israeli officials refused to comment.

A low-level delegation from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' West Bank government was also in Cairo for talks, but was not expected to meet with Hamas. Abbas' Fatah party controls the West Bank and is recognized by the West and Israel, but has held not influence in the Gaza Strip since Hamas seized power more than a year ago.

Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies and do not talk to each other, relying instead on Egyptian mediation.

The European Union, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey appealed to Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to form a unity government.

Meanwhile, EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel announced euro58 million ($74 million) in emergency aid Monday for Palestinians affected by the Israel-Hamas conflict.