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The BBC's Paul Wood in Jerusalem
"Israel has been plunged into... a rancorous election campaign"
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'BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy'
"An inquiry the Palestinians have long pressed for and Israel has never wanted"
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The BBC's Nick Childs in Jerusalem
"The election and the peace processes seem destined to be held hostage by each other"
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Monday, 11 December, 2000, 22:34 GMT
Mid-East mission begins delicate task
The Mitchell commission and the Israeli prime minister (third left)
All smiles so far: The commission and Ehud Barak
A United States-led mission has begun looking into the causes of the continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The commission is not a tribunal

Member Javier Solana
The group, led by the former US Senator, George Mitchell, held talks with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and went on later to meet the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza.

Israel and the Palestinians agreed to the fact-finding mission at a summit in Egypt in October, but disagree sharply about what it is supposed to achieve.

The mission coincides with the beginning of an Israeli election campaign, with the right-wing former Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, trying to stand against Mr Barak.

New violence

Mr Mitchell, who has helped to broker a peace settlement in Northern Ireland, said after meeting Mr Barak: "We have no illusion about the difficult nature of the task.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
Arafat: Putting a brave face on Palestinian disquiet
"Our hope is that our work will be helpful to the parties in reducing the level of violence that has claimed so many lives and to help ensure an early return to the negotiating table".

The difficulties which the mission faces were highlighted by a new killing on Monday in the West Bank.

Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian man alleged to be an Islamic militant in what the soldiers called self-defence, but what the Palestinians said was an assassination.

Despite criticism of the Mitchell mission by some Palestinians, Mr Arafat said after two hours of talks with the team that it was playing a "very important role".

Our hope is that our work will be helpful to the parties in reducing the level of violence

Team leader George Mitchell
"What is very important is to push forward and to protect the peace process," he said.

The five members of the mission are due to spend three days in the region and expect to rely on written reports on both sides.

Javier Solana of Spain, a senior European Union official in the group, said it had not been formed to judge either side but help offer solutions to end the bloodshed.

"The commission is not a tribunal," Mr Solana told reporters in Jerusalem.

He said the team aimed to analyse the situation with the two sides, to meet the leaders of Egypt and Jordan this week, and to make recommendations to the US president by the end of March, which would be passed onto the United Nations.

Different perceptions

The mission will be hampered by different views of its goals, however.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
Netanyahu is trying to manoevre a come-back
The BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says that Israeli officials see the commission as being, at best, an unwelcome distraction and, at worst, an attempt by Israel's critics to put it in the dock.

In an attempt to limit that risk, Israel insists the team's job is not to apportion blame but to suggest ways of preventing future violence.

However the Palestinians, who want the mission to determine who is to blame, are dismayed it will spend only a short time in the region and will not conduct field interviews.

The Palestinians - as well as the UN Security Council and human rights groups - have accused Israel of using excessive force during the uprising, which has left more than 300 people dead, more than 270 of them Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

The other members of the commission, apart from Mr Mitchell and Mr Solana, are Warren Rudman, a US Senator, the former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel and the Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland.

Israelis preoccupied

In Israel itself, the mission's arrival was overshadowed by the intensive political manoeuvering under way as Mr Netanyahu tried to find votes in the Knesset which would allow him to challenge Mr Barak for the premiership.

Opinion polls suggests that Mr Netanyahu offers the opposition Likud party's best chance of defeating Mr Barak.

But Mr Netanyahu is not currently eligible to stand as he is not a member of parliament.

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See also:

11 Dec 00 | Middle East
MPs consider Netanyahu bid
10 Dec 00 | Middle East
Barak 'ambush' galvanises opposition
10 Dec 00 | Media reports
Barak on his 'toughest mission'
10 Dec 00 | Media reports
Barak resignation: What they said
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