Mitchell Take I: ‘700 Days of Failure’

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.

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