This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 13/05/2011
On hearing the announcement of Senator George Mitchell's resignation as special envoy for Middle East peace, I skype-messaged the news to a friend in Israel known for her biting sarcasm. Her response was quick in coming and did not disappoint: "Mitchell is still the envoy, who knew?"
There's been quite a lot happening in the Middle East recently, and the Israeli-Palestinian equation has not been left untouched. Yet the special envoy for Middle East peace has not been to the Middle East since mid-December.
Sen. Mitchell was prone to remind audiences that in his last stint as a peace envoy, working on Northern Ireland, he had "700 days of failure and one day of success." Resignation day marked Sen. Mitchell's 842nd day on the Middle East peace beat, but this time around there were no "days of success." Mitchell's original appointment came on Obama's second full day of office and was greeted in certain quarters with some enthusiasm and hope (including by this writer). In 2001, working with a strong back-office, he had produced the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee Report, noteworthy for its depth and sophistication of analysis. It is hard not to conclude that this time around, Sen. Mitchell has disappointed.
Not all of the blame belongs at Mitchell's door, of course. Throwing an envoy at a problem, even one with a distinguished record, is no substitute for a smart, strategic policy. Apparently the first misstep of the Obama administration on Mideast peace was its failure to step back and conduct a thorough review of what had already been tried, why things were so stuck, and to look at the structural flaws in the peace process they had inherited.
The official explanation thus far cited for Mitchell's resignation is "personal reasons." Given the timing of the announcement, days before an expected presidential speech on the Middle East and a much-anticipated visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, it would be almost unnatural not to speculate what else might be behind this announcement.
Two obvious reasons suggest themselves, with a third possibility that enters more counterintuitive territory. Sen. Mitchell is a Mr. Negotiator-type - that is his skill set and legal background. It may be that he sees no prospect for negotiations and therefore no reason to stay on. Some will no doubt claim that the recently signed Palestinian power-sharing deal, including Fatah and Hamas, scuppered the prospects for a resumption of negotiations. One would really have to not be paying attention to make such a claim. In the over two years of this administration, there have been 30 days in which Israelis and Palestinians were in negotiation mode and 813 days in which they have not been.
The PLO has reached the conclusion, and yes it took a while, that conducting negotiations -- absent terms of reference and against the backdrop of relentless settlement construction -- was not working so well. Israel was far chirpier with the existing negotiating modality, rejecting the change in formula as an unwarranted attempt to impose preconditions.
A second route for speculation places Envoy Mitchell on the losing side of an internal administration policy debate -- the suggestion being that Mitchell has advocated for a more forward-leaning U.S. approach, perhaps involving U.S. parameters for future negotiations.
The third, more unexpected explanation for this resignation has the administration utilizing Mitchell's final act as envoy, namely his stepping down, as a way of sending a message mainly to the Israeli prime minister that if he was not willing to step up his game in a serious way then the U.S. too could step back (something that might focus the Israeli leader's mind with a possible Palestinian move for recognition at the U.N. looming in September). There have been rumors for some time of Mitchell's imminent departure. Perhaps they were waiting for a moment of maximum impact, but more on that in a moment.
Going forward, the administration essentially has four options for approaching the Israeli-Palestinian file:
1. Lead -- A bold U.S. move to advance a solution or at least to agree a border on the '67 lines allowing for equal land swaps, creating a two-state reality. That would probably require a U.S. plan, U.S. cajoling, and a recalibration of how the U.S. applies incentives and disincentives to the parties, requiring a degree of patience and commitment over time to allow internal debates to play out in both publics.
2. "Lead from behind" (as it is now known, courtesy of an unnamed official via Ryan Lizza) -- The administration acknowledges its own limited wiggle space on this issue, given its reading of domestic politics, and allows for a more multilateral approach to achieving de-occupation and security for all. That might include an enhanced role for the Quartet and for the United Nations.
3. Follow Israel-- The administration gives practical backing and diplomatic cover to whatever conflict management approach is pursued by Israel. This is the de-facto reality that has prevailed for very many years.
4. Strategic withdrawal -- The U.S. downgrades its active involvement in the "peace process" in gradually calibrated ways. The parties are therefore less able to take cover behind the U.S., a loss that is more likely to be felt on the Israeli than the Palestinian side.
The "leading" and "leading from behind" options suffer from similar domestic political shortcomings while the price for "following Israel" continues to accumulate on the side of the ledger marked damaging America's national security interests. The strategic withdrawal option is itself hardly cost-free. America would still stand by its ally Israel and be blamed for not using its influence -- it is an option that is not sustainable over time. But in the particular confluence of circumstances existing right now, strategic withdrawal might be an interesting interim choice.
Ordinarily an Israeli leader from the right might welcome having those pesky Americans off his back -- that is not though the situation today. Right now, Netanyahu needs Obama's assistance to avoid a politically embarrassing and diplomatically unnerving outcome at the United Nations in September. Given the Palestinian intention to take this to the General Assembly, a U.S.no vote will not be enough. Israel is looking to America to help prevent any U.N. vote.
So was the timing of this announcement designed to sow a little uncertainty into Netanyahu's calculations, nudging him to deliver something more meaningful during his visit? A stretch maybe, but the administration might consider an approach along those lines. Such an approach would anyway have to be limited in duration. For its own interests, the U.S. will not want to find itself isolated and discredited in any U.N. vote, especially one of the magnitude that surrounds recognition of a Palestinian state. As September approaches, holding a gun to Netanyahu's head in this way would begin to resemble the arrival of the new sheriff of Rock Ridge taking himself hostage at gunpoint in the Mel Brooks classic, Blazing Saddles.
Finally, where does all of this leave the president's planned Middle East speech? It seems that the speech will not be Israeli-Palestinian-centric nor will it be programmatic in offering a solution for the conflict. The speech will be about the region and there's certainly enough to talk about without getting granular on Israel-Palestine. Yet Israel-Palestine also cannot be ignored. It remains a central prism through which the region and the Muslim world view the U.S, something keenly appreciated by all recent Centcom commanders. To pretend that the so-called Arab Spring proves otherwise is delusional, overlooking numerous surveys of Arab opinion, ignoring changes already underway in Egyptian policy, and providing dangerous false comfort to Israel.
President Obama could use that speech to take to the next level the home truths he started to outline in the Cairo 2009 speech. The previous message of civil rights struggle could be taken up a notch, focusing his response to the recent Palestinian unity deal on the need for nonviolence, while acknowledging existing Palestinian non-violent protests and calling on Israel to hold true to democratic values in its response. The president might note the added urgency to achieving real progress given the changing regional environment. He might even draw on the experiences of his former envoy, Sen. Mitchell, when trying to secure a settlement freeze. In acknowledging how difficult freezing, let alone evacuating, settlements is for Israel, he might ask what the alternatives are and whether those are preferable: For instance, having settlers remain as residents in a sovereign Palestinian state on the '67 lines and what the Israelis would give in return for such an outcome (Palestinian refugees return as residents to Israel?); or would Israelis rather have one shared democratic state, thereby allowing all of the settlers to remain where they are?
Across four administrations and 20 years, there has been a developing assumption of what a two-state outcome looks like. Yet it has not been implemented and today would require the withdrawal of at least 100,000 settlers. It would be honest and timely to ask whether this assumption still has validity. Perhaps Israelis will find that old two-state option more attractive when set in such a context.
One thing President Obama might not overly concern himself with is the need to preempt Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to congress on May 24. Yes, Netanyahu will receive a rousing ovation (sadly, that would probably be the case if Netanyahu read out the phonebook, in Hebrew). But he is unlikely to offer anything of substance to change the trajectory of developments in the coming months. The members of congress in attendance might want to chew on the fact that last time Netanyahu was given the honor of addressing both chambers in 1996, there were 140,000 settlers in the West Bank alone. When this year's speech is delivered, that number will have more than doubled to over 300,000.
Should the president decide that he does want to get out ahead and lead, there will be plenty of time to do so before September, and even to give a more detailed Israel-Palestine speech -- in the words of that ex-envoy, you only need "one day of success."
Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is an editor of the Middle East Channel