JERUSALEM - President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy began a new round of diplomacy Wednesday aimed at bridging the growing divide between a right-wing Israeli government and a weak Palestinian leadership.

George Mitchell's first challenge will be a series of meetings with a new Israeli government that is seemingly at odds with the Obama administration over the basic outlines for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Mitchell, on a weeklong regional tour, said on an earlier stop in Algeria on Tuesday that the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel is "the only way" to peace.

On Thursday, Mitchell will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has not endorsed Palestinian statehood and has yet to unveil his government's policy on peace efforts. He will also talk with Netanyahu's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who has said pledges made by the previous Israeli administration to work for Palestinian independence are no longer relevant.

He met with Defence Minister Ehud Barak at his Tel Aviv home Wednesday evening.

Promising a vigorous push for Israel-Palestinian peace, Mitchell made his first Middle East foray in January, just a week after Obama took office. He made a second visit with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a month later.

Since then, a general election that strengthened hawks and the religious Jewish right put Netanyahu at the head of a governing alliance softened only slightly by the inclusion of Barak's battered Labour party, beaten into fourth place in the election.

Mitchell did not speak on his arrival Wednesday.

In addition to Netanyahu and Lieberman, he was expected to meet with opposition leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and President Shimon Peres.

On Friday he is scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank. Their government, headed by Abbas' Fatah movement, is in control only of the West Bank because their rivals in the militant Hamas group seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Efforts to reconcile those factions have so far failed, adding a serious obstacle to peace efforts.

Speaking to businessmen Wednesday, Fayyad said Netanyahu's stated preference for concentrating on Palestinian economic growth for now, while putting statehood talks aside for some point in the future, would not bring peace.

"If there is to be any two-state solution to speak of, the Israeli government must take immediate and bold steps toward ending its colonization and occupation of Palestinian territory," Fayyad said.

Visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos said after meeting Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki in Ramallah that the two-state model remains "the only option."

Moratinos said he too would meet Netanyahu and Lieberman on Thursday, seeking to learn their intentions.

"I want to listen to them," he told reporters. "The Israeli government is now evaluating its political relationships with the Palestinian government and the international community."

Latest From ...