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Mitchell the man for the job?
Foreign policy expert says the US envoy to the Middle East may be taking the wrong approach.
Last Modified: 25 Jan 2010 15:06 GMT

Is the challenge of one of the world's most critical fault lines too big a job for Mitchell? [EPA]

Senator George Mitchell is one of America's most impressive public servants.

He has served the state of Maine well, chaired any number of commissions for various presidents since his senate retirement and patiently plodded through years of work and negotiations with historically opposed foes in the Northern Ireland peace process and achieved peace.

However, he may not be the right envoy to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Mitchell telegraphed the problem from the day that Barack Obama, the US president, announced his appointment on the first work day of the new administration.

Mitchell said that all parties would have to be patient and that it takes years for a process such as the one being envisioned - to create peace between two eventually viable states of Israel and Palestine - to come to fruition.

However, he failed to acknowledge that the negotiations over what Palestine would eventually become have been taking place for decades and have involved many US presidents.

He is not starting at zero and there is not much time left to achieve a new and more constructive 'equilibrium' between Israel and Palestine. I prefer the term 'equilibrium' over the more hopeful and naïve goal of 'peace'.

Fault Line

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With all due respect to those involved in some of the fantastic achievements in resolving the Northern Ireland issue, that conflict was not a fault line at the centre of global stability. 

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is no longer about either of these strategically immature entities. The conflict is about much more - and the Israel/Palestine fault line is one of the San Andreas fault lines of the global order.

This conflict has massive regional and global consequences: Negotiations with Syria and Iran, the stability of Iraq, the prospects of normalisation of relations between the Arab League and Israel, even the toxicity of Arab jihadist rhetoric and its appeal in Afghanistan and Pakistan are affected by Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.

After the disappointing announcement by Obama in his trilateral meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, that all parties had failed to secure agreement to move negotiations forward, the US president did not back off. 

He said that this was going to remain a priority for him and that we could not afford to settle with the mess we have today.

Obama made this point even more strongly the next day during his UN General Assembly speech which conveyed to his own staff what a priority this was to him - and how this priority needed to be proceeded.

Fake or failed efforts are not going to be accepted by Obama. He gets how globally consequential this standoff remains, and he knows that Israel and Palestine need to be compelled to do more than they have done.

Begging Israel

But Mitchell, with all due respect to this great man, is practically begging Israel to co-operate.

Israel will not. It has no incentive to do so. It is the regional superpower and has the upper hand as the occupier in question.

The most important lesson to be learned from the failed Annapolis process is that without two things - genuine US presidential 'engagement' and a broader stakeholder approach to the problem that does not depend on the goodwill of just Palestine and Israel - the conflict will not be resolved.

Mitchell has been meeting with everyone in the region about the conflict but his comments and his focus have been on trying to move Palestine and Israel to behave responsibly and in ways that fit their collective interest.

He should have been seeking agreement from the Saudis, Jordanians, Russians, Europeans, Syrians, Egyptians, the UN, and the Arab League in general to come to terms on what the world feels would be acceptable in a final status framework - and then impose that construct on the parties.

This would move us beyond the pathetic whining to try to get the process started to one that would be more about the implementation of a final status framework.

When Mitchell goes back to the region, he needs to stiffen his backbone and communicate to parties on both sides of the conflict that the world is not going to wait for them to continue to mismanage their interests.

He should also meet with Hamas and get beyond that taboo.

Seduced

Abbas was seduced by the Obama team into believing that this time would be different.

Mitchell will have to convince Erekat, right, to keep faith in the process [EPA]
Saeb Erekat, his chief negotiator, is particularly disheartened that Obama has seemingly backed off from his insistence that Israel cease any settlement expansion before negotiations begin.

Mitchell will now have to get the Palestinians to continue to believe in a process which has only humiliated them.

He could still surprise observers and pull something off, but rationality is not allowing me to give him much prospect of success given the way he is approaching the challenge.

Once we see the Mitchell plan eventually unveiled, the power and leverage that Mitchell has now - mostly because of the secrecy of his meetings and the opaqueness of his views - will dissipate. 

If Mitchell does not reinvent himself and the process, if he does not get to a point where he communicates Obama's steel-fashioned resolve to see results from both parties, and does not begin to assemble a ring of stakeholders willing to reward and punish both Israel and Palestine in a tough-minded agreement on final status issues, then he needs to be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama for his good work and then given another big task, perhaps in Mexico.

And then Obama will need to call Bill Clinton ....

Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note.

Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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