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January 23, 2009

Mitchell "an ideal man for the job"
Posted by Max Bergmann

While some are questioning the appointment of George Mitchell as a special envoy to the Middle East on the grounds that he will be too objective and balanced, but if peace is your objective then Obama could not have picked a better person. His efforts in Northern Ireland were exceptional. Mitchell was lauded for his patience and objectivity and moved a process through years of negotiations that resulted in one of the most innovative peace agreements in history.

Both sides of the conflict view him with the utmost respect. On his appointment as envoy to the Mideast the Belfast Telegraph editorialized:

There can hardly be a person on the planet who is better qualified for this complex and sensitive role. Senator Mitchell is a modest man, but he is regarded deservedly as one of the heroes of the Northern Ireland peace process. At a time when the outlook seemed particularly bleak, George Mitchell demonstrated patience, courage and a painstaking attention to detail as he tried to break the impasse…One of his greatest assets was to create trust with people on all sides in a much-troubled Northern Ireland. Few of the participants in the political process trusted each other, but they all trusted George Mitchell, and he became the essential catalyst in the development of a most unlikely peace process...There is no guarantee of success for George Mitchell, but if there is anyone in the world who can make a difference, he is the most likely statesman to do so. He deserves every encouragement.

Now his past success in Northern Ireland does not mean that this will be easily replicated. But the challenges that posed a successful resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict were in some ways greater than they are in the Middle East. Mitchell had to usher through an incredibly complicated agreement that had to enable peaceful co-habitation of the warring parties and establish innovative ways to overlap Northern Ireland’s sovereignty with the Republic and with the UK.  Not only did achieving peace in Northern Ireland require getting Protestants and Catholics to live peaceably together, but required getting them to govern together – ie Martin McGuiness a former IRA gunman worked on education policy with Ian Paisley. At least, Mitchell doesn’t have to get Netanyahu to form a government with Hamas leader Ismail Haniya. And at least in the Middle East both sides generally know what the final terms of a peace agreement will be – partition into two distinct states. 

Mitchell’s challenge isn’t so much getting to “yes” on an agreement but merely getting to the table. While in Ireland all sides were exhausted and were willing to take bold steps to begin negotiations – such as John Major quietly dropping the UK’s vow not to “negotiate with terrorists” and beginning talks with Sinn Fein and Sinn Fein’s acceptance of a status short of a united Ireland – in the Middle East the split between Hamas and Fatah, Israel’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas, and Hamas’ refusal to move down from its maximalist stance means simply getting to the table with all relevant players seems almost impossible. So Mitchell’s job over the next few years in terms of the peace process seems less about getting to “yes” and more about trying to rekindle momentum for peace that could eventually serve to push the parties to the negotiating table.

It’s a hell of challenge, but Mitchell is the man to give it a go.


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Mitchell's mother was from Lebanon so he might have a better perspective of the Arab point of view as opposed to Dennis Ross.

Well yes, it's "It’s a hell of challenge" because as Professor As'ad AbuKhalil, the "Angry Arab," said:

Well, it took two long days before Obama dispelled any notions of a change in US Middle East policy. For some reasons, many Arabs and many American leftists I know (you know yourselves) have wanted to believe so bad that Obama will deviate from the Zionist path of US foreign policy. I knew that it would be a matter of weeks that he would prove me right, but I did not know that he would prove me right in a matter of hours. His speech on the Middle East today could have easily been written by Benjamin Netanyahu....///

Or George Bush, I would add.

from The Jordan Times:

The US cannot be an honest broker as long as it continues to:

- Give billions in military aid to Israel, used to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity (see human rights reports on the recent Gaza aggression, including use of white phosphorus and DIME weapons).

- Use its veto power and diplomatic muscle to shield Israel from international law and human rights obligations.

- Demand that Hamas accept Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and abide by previous agreements (that it did not sign) while refusing to demand the same from Israel. Why not insist that Israel recognise Palestine’s right to exist (or at least Palestinian right to true independence on the land that Israel stole helped by the 1947 partition resolution). Why not ask Israel to renounce violence and why not demand that it abide by the signed agreements (e.g., freezing settlement activities, opening borders, allowing freedom of movement etc.)?

Both Palestinians and Israelis have work to do, but one cannot equate the nuclear-armed, 4th-strongest army in the world with a dispossessed and occupied people (two thirds of the 10 million Palestinians in the world are refugees or displaced people).

I heard George Mitchell speak in Dublin a number of years ago about the lessons that could be learned from the NI peace process and how these lessons could be applied to the Middle East. He was inspiring. The biggest similarity is that in both trouble spots, many people had and have convinced themselves that the conflict is a permanent thing which their children and grandchildren are destined to be fighting. They were proved wrong in Northern Ireland. They will be proved wrong in the Holy Land.

Mr Bergman makes a vital point. In NI (and South Africa too) the warring parties had to figure out a way to live and govern together. This was and continues to be an unbelievable painstaking process. Its a process that will not have to be undertaken in the Middle East as in the holy land its about living side by side in seperated states. In this sense the Middle East conflict is easier to solve. Always remind people of this when they say there will never be peace because Jews and Muslims are too different.

Mr Bergman makes a vital point. In NI (and South Africa too) the warring parties had to figure out a way to live and govern together.

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I wish Mr. Mitchell all the luck in the world. If he can convince the Israelis to negotiate in good faith, he might have a chance. However, since this would require the abandonment of ALL West Bank settlements and the recognition of Arab property rights in East Jerusalem, I'm not holding my breath.

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