US Mideast envoy George Mitchell arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday for talks with Israeli officials – the first of four US officials set to visit this week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
is also scheduled to meet Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser James Jones and top Iran and Mideast specialist Dennis Ross.
At a meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak
in Tel Aviv, Mitchell described the differences with Israel as "discussions among friends," and "not disputes among adversaries." He said a "wide range of issues" were being addressed, but didn't announce any breakthroughs.
Meanwhile Sunday, the US Embassy in Tel Aviv said Mitchell would make a quick trip to Egypt before returning to Israel for more talks.
Embassy spokesman Kurt Hoyer said the envoy's trip to Cairo came at the request of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mitchell was scheduled to visit Egypt on Tuesday.
It was not immediately known why Mubarak asked Mitchell to move up his visit.
Hossam Zaki, Egypt's Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Mitchell was scheduled to meet with Mubarak and other officials Monday. Hoyer said Mitchell would return to Israel for talks with Israeli leaders on Monday.
During Sunday's meeting in Jerusalem, Mitchell thanked Barak and Netanyahu for the steps already taken to improve the movement and access in the West Bank and other areas, where he said Israel had proved its readiness to move forward. The American commitment to Israel's security is unshakable and won't change, he added.
The defense minister praised the US envoy and his mission to push for a regional arrangement focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian channel.
"We are willing to do all it takes to help, while maintaining our vital interests," Barak said. "We understand the partners' needs and we undoubtedly could use Mitchell's experience and wisdom in order to try and achieve this."
Mitchell told reporters he has been urging Arab leaders "to take steps towards normalisation as gestures of their own to demonstrate that everyone in the region shares the vision of comprehensive peace that we share".
Barak has publicly raised the possibility of halting construction in settlements while allowing building projects under way to continue, as part of a deal in which Arab countries would take initial steps to normalise relations with Israel.
Arab moves towards commercial or diplomatic ties with Israel could help Netanyahu persuade partners in his right-leaning coalition to accept a compromise on settlements.
Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu said
he hoped to work out key policy disagreements with the US during the series of meetings with high-profile American envoys this week.
Netanyahu is under heavy pressure to freeze construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – a demand he has so far resisted. Washington also is concerned that Israel
may be planning an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. It wants time for President Barack Obama's offer of engagement to Iran
to bear fruit.
"Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn't agreement on all points, and on several issues we are trying to reach an understanding, in order to make progress together toward our shared goals _ peace, security and prosperity for the whole Middle East," Netanyahu said ahead of his cabinet's weekly meeting.
The US says continued Israeli construction on lands claimed by the Palestinians threatens to undermine future peace talks.
Israel says some expansion must be permitted to accommodate the "natural growth" of settler families.
Netanyahu also says Israel must keep building in east Jerusalem, which it captured and annexed in 1967 and sees as an integral part of its capital city. Nearly 300,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 more living in east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem as part of a future independent state. Encouraged by the tough US stance, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
has refused to hold peace talks with Netanyahu until settlement activity is frozen.
While maintaining good ties with the US is considered a key Israeli interest, Netanyahu faces pressure from inside his coalition not to accede to the US demands.
"What has to be made crystal clear is that there's no talk, no discussion, no negotiation over Jerusalem or what we do within the city," Minister Uzi Landau said Sunday.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report