The N.Y. Times brings welcome news that Barack Obama has chosen former Senator George Mitchell as his new envoy with a brief to negotiate a resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Mitchell more than proved his mettle helping negotiate an end to the Northern Ireland conflict.
This is an appointment that neither Israel nor the Israel lobby will like because they will have little opportunity to “play” Mitchell or game the system as they often attempt to do. With a weak president or secretary of state, it’s far easier for both to manipulate U.S. political reality in their favor with the help of groups like Aipac and others. However, we now have a strong president with a clear mandate to effect change in both the domestic and foreign sphere. Mitchell too is a heavyweight who cannot be “played” or spun. He has had previous experience in this field as well having been appointed by Bill Clinton to study the issues and provide advice on how to resolve them:
“He’s neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel and an adviser to the Clinton administration. “He’s, in a sense, neutral.”
You can often tell how an appointment is playing out by examining who’s against it. James Besser reports in Jewish Weeks:
The expected appointment of a special envoy to breathe new life into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could split the pro-Israel center while pleasing the Jewish left and outraging the right. The schism could be particularly deep if…President Barack Obama appoints former Sen. George Mitchell to the job.
Some Jewish leaders say the very qualities that may appeal to the Obama administration — Mitchell’s reputation as an honest broker — could spark unhappiness, if not outright opposition, from some pro-Israel groups.
“Sen. Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been ‘even handed’ — it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support.
“So I’m concerned,” Foxman continued. “I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East.”
…The fact that he does not have the personal connections to Israel of other leading candidates for the envoy job and his reputation for building relationships with both sides in negotiations worry some pro-Israel leaders who have become accustomed to the hands-off approach of former President George W. Bush.
M.J. Rosenberg also accurately conveys the extreme nervousness of the pro-Israel lobby:
Major pro-Israel groups “tend to favor the kind of mediator with the least prospects of success,” said MJ Rosenberg, a longtime pro-Israel activist and policy director for the Israel Policy Forum (IPF). “George Mitchell worries them because he was so successful in Northern Ireland, a success that was built on his persistence and his utterly impartiality … and a deal means Israeli concessions which they have never favored. The stronger the candidate for envoy or mediator — the more of an honest broker he or she would be — the more uncomfortable they are.”
One thing that concerns me is that some analysts prefer to see Mitchell’s appointment as non-substantive. They see him as a placeholder meant to give Obama time to develop a real policy while at the same time displaying Mitchell to the various Mideast players as a mark of his seriousness (but little else). I would hope someone of the stature of Mitchell at this late date in his career wouldn’t need another feather in his cap; and feel the need to assume such a job without having real power to negotiate on behalf of the president. There have been scores of such appointees going back through many previous administrations. We don’t need yet another expression of good intentions. We need someone who can lead, who can butt heads together and, as he’s doing it, tell both parties that he’s delivering a message from the president of the United States. George Mitchell could be that man.
There had been rumors that Dennis Ross might play this role. Given his background in the Aiapc/WINEP think-tank world, I’m pleased he did not receive this appointment. It indicates to me that Obama wants someone not seen as carrying water for one party or the other.