This commentary was published in CFR blog on 13/05/2011
George Mitchell resigned today (Friday 13, 2011) as the President’s special envoy for the Middle East. Mitchell was appointed the second day President Obama was in office, January 22, 2009, and his role was given great importance. He was a symbol of the new Administration’s determination to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He made innumerable trips to the region, gave many press conferences, and assembled a substantial staff. So what happened?
I am told that the final straw for Mitchell was a failure to convince the White House that the President’s speech next week must include a American detailed plan for Middle East peace. That would be a very bad idea, rightly rejected (if my sources are right) by the White House. Mitchell was said to believe that such a plan could bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table now for a serious negotiation.
This is extraordinary, for it seems to overlook the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement signed two weeks ago. Israel is not going to negotiate with a delegation containing Hamas representatives, whether an American plan is on the table or not. Moreover, both parties would likely have rejected parts of any detailed American proposal (while officially applauding it, of course), so Mitchell’s idea would have left the President looking weaker. It was bad advice.
In fact, Mitchell’s advice has been disastrous all along. He is one of the fathers of the idea that a 100% construction freeze in Jerusalem as well as all the West Bank settlements is a necessary precondition for peace talks. Such a total freeze is impossible for any Israeli prime minister, and had never previously been viewed by Palestinian leaders as a prerequisite to going to the table. Of course, once Mitchell got that approach adopted by the President, the Palestinians had to adopt it as well; they could not risk appearing less demanding than we were. The end result was frustration on all sides. In a strikingly nasty interview with Newsweek, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told the story this way: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.” It is sad to say so, but for about two years now Israeli and Palestinian officials alike have been complaining that Mitchell had strong ideas and meant well but did not listen to them. That the President saw Mitchell off with a written statement rather than a warm personal embrace may suggest that he had worn out his welcome at the White House too. The President thanked Mitchell by saying that “as he returns to his family, George leaves behind a proud legacy of dedicated public service….” That does not make it sound like the Administration plans on enlisting him again in any other capacity.
Who should replace Mitchell? The Bush Administration had no special envoy, and the Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary for the Near East did the heavy lifting when there was a need for diplomatic action. That is a better model. If a new envoy is named now, he or she will have nothing to do: at least until the Palestinian elections next year settle the role of Hamas in their political system there will be no negotiations. That suggests the old Washington practice of “dual hatting:” if you absolutely have to have an envoy, name the current Assistant Secretary for the Near East or some other State official with a real job. Then you can say you still have an envoy, but that person won’t have to do make-work and gin up trips to looks busy.
The President has made the right decision, if my information is right, in diminishing the attention to Israeli-Palestinian matters in his forthcoming address and concentrating instead on Bin Laden and the Arab Spring. The “peace process” has been brought to a screeching halt by the deal between Fatah and Hamas. The President would do himself no favors by making it a central part of next week’s speech