Archive for January 25th, 2009

Mitchell Take I: ‘700 Days of Failure’

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Two things stand out for me about the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy for Arab-Israel affairs.

First is the fact of the appointment itself, coming on Obama’s second day in office. This is a stark departure from the “hands off” approach initially adopted by the Bush administration.

Just how hands-off was George Bush? According to the Middle East Review of International Affairs:

When the Bush Administration took office on January 20, 2001, it took a long time to get senior-level executives in place, especially for dealing with the Middle East, for which an assistant secretary of state was not approved until late May … 

Bush essentially followed a “not Clinton” policy and refused to get personally involved in trying to settle the conflict.  Secretary of State Powell repeatedly emphasized the primary responsibility of the parties themselves to solve the conflict.  “We will facilitate, but at the end of the day, it will have to be the parties in the region who will have to find the solution.”

It took Bush more than four months to hand out the Arab-Israel portfolio, and then, not to a special envoy, but to an assistant secretary of state.

The Review goes on to note:

The U.S. did not send a representative to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Taba which took place at the end of January, just before the February 7, 2001 Israeli elections.  [And] the U.S. ended CIA mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinians, which had begun as part of the Wye Plantation agreement of October 1998. 

It’s easy to forget just how intentionally absent Bush in fact was on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Obama, by appointing Mitchell, is showing concretely that the U.S. is not just a facilitator, but a player — with a firm stake in the outcome.

The other thing I note is that Mitchell’s experience in helping broker peace in Northern Ireland should serve him well in the Middle East.

Of that experience, Mitchell said: “We had 700 days of failure and one day of success.”

Patience, resolve, and a dry sense of humor.

That’s my kind of Middle East peace negotiator.

POSTSCRIPT: This is what Obama told Al Arabiya, regarding Mitchell’s role:

I think the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away. And George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals.

And so what I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues –and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved. So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.

Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them. They’re going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.

Mitchell Take II: A Jewish Communal Approach

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

There is, of course, much praise of Mitchell from the left and center of the Jewish world (the National Jewish Democratic Council lauded the appointment, noting Mitchell “has a strong record of support for Israel’s security”), as well as a critique of him from the right.

Shmuel Rosner, writing in the New Republic, said that Obama “made the fairly safe, cautious choice” in appointing Mitchell. (“Buying Time; Why George Mitchell is the perfect envoy not to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”)

Of Mitchell’s 2000 Middle East fact-finding commission, Rosner writes:

His report was adopted, but not wholeheartedly adapted, by both parties. It had something for everyone: The Palestinians got their demand (rejected by Israel) for a freeze of settlements, while Israelis got their unequivocal demand for “ending the violence” launched by Palestinians in 2000.

Rosner’s main critique seems to be that Mitchell’s report let Arafat off the hook:

The Mitchell Report finding that seems much more problematic today is the conclusion that Palestinian violence was not planned by the Palestinian leadership (namely, Yasser Arafat). The report says that “we were provided with no persuasive evidence that the [Ariel] Sharon visit [to Temple Mount in 2000] was anything other than an internal political act; neither were we provided with persuasive evidence that the PA planned the uprising.” This was, arguably, the most devastating rebuke of Israel’s claims–what most Israelis believe today, and what the Bush administration eventually came to believe –that Arafat wanted, initiated, planned, and executed this terror campaign.

And perhaps also that Mitchell was, if anything, too even-handed:

This was typical Mitchell. Rejecting the narrative of both sides–Mitchell did not accept Palestinians’ claims that Sharon’s “provocation” was the cause for violence either–in the hope that a third, “balanced” version, can be swallowed, if not enthusiastically, by the parties. There’s reason to assume that in style, if not in substance, Mitchell will not change this approach and will try to find a middle ground, earning some praise and some rebuke for his actions.

I don’t know. To my mind, promulgating a balanced “third” version that both sides can swallow will in fact be an important part of the key to any solution. This is a centuries long, utterly intractable dispute. The narrative, ultimately, will have to shift for opposing sides to once again shake hands.

Rosner made one point that I think is hard to dispute:

His achievement or failure will not be determined by new road maps or modified Obama parameters. Mitchell’s success will be determined by the ability of the Obama administration to engage Iran effectively, and by its ability to turn the regional tide. As long as those forces working to destabilize the Middle East–Hezbollah, Hamas, and their enablers–control the pace of events and inspire the Arab masses, it is very hard to envision a “road map” that will take this track to its final destination.

Thus, the appointment of the patient, distinguished Mitchell is playing for time: As he works to create the conditions for peace, his other colleagues will be tasked with the more daunting mission. This is the “linkage theory” turned upside-down: The real difference between the original linkage (that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to the region) and the second (that the region is the key to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is that the latter has a much better chance of actually leading to peace in the Middle East. Iran, after all, is a source of instability across the region, funding terrorist groups in Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon, and propping up the Syrian regime. Mitchell’s portfolio does not include negotiations with Iran; but the outcome of those talks will be the most significant factor in accomplishing his mission.

In other words, solving the Israel-Palestinian dispute isn’t going to lead to a regional solution: Iran is the lynchpin.

I was speaking about this today with a high up lay-leader in the Jewish community. He called Rosner’s take, astutely, “a criticism of the description of the problem,” and agreed that a “whole system” approach is necessary in the Middle East.

Yes, have “sub-teams” working on their specific areas, but ultimately have somebody — perhaps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — focusing on the region as a whole, bringing all the strands together.

“That’s what the Jewish community should push for,” he said.

To which I say: Amen.

POSTSCRIPT: Apparently, Obama agrees.

He said this yesterday on Al Arabiya, Arab television:

It is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what’s happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These things are interrelated. And what I’ve said, and I think Hillary Clinton has expressed this in her confirmation, is that if we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world, that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress.

Purple Ticket Blues

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Good news for those of us who had purple tickets for the inaugural, but were left out in the cold, jostling for our lives, or standing in the darkness in the 3rd St. tunnel of doom.

We get a consolation prize.

The AP reports:

Ticket holders who never made it to President Obama’s inauguration are going to get a consolation prize. Thousands of people who had tickets to the swearing in were not allowed to enter the Mall and instead were stranded in a tunnel near the Capitol or at other security checkpoints. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies said that those people would receive copies of the swearing-in invitation and program, photographs of Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and a color print of the ceremony. A committee spokeswoman, Carole Florman, said people should check the committee’s Web site,, early next week for instructions on now to claim the items.

It’s a nice gesture. And, I sort of feel like, it cements those of us who didn’t get in as part of the story — part of history.

I guess that’d already happend though. There’s already a purple ticket Facebook page. And there’s been plenty of press about it. As the LA Times reports:

You wouldn’t think a presidential inauguration would require a survivors group. But shortly after thousands of ticket holders were trapped in an underground tunnel beneath the National Mall on Tuesday, a new Facebook group was born: Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom. Membership as of Thursday evening: 3,950.

I just checked. Membership is up over 5,000.

Membership has its privileges. Still — I would rather have been there.