Mitchell Take II: A Jewish Communal Approach

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.

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