Monday, January 19, 2009

Mitchell to the Rescue?

Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton may be about to signal President-elect Barack Obama's intention to be more evenhanded in his approach towards Israelis and Palestinians in the quest for peace.

The New York Times reports that Obama may appoint former Senator George J. Mitchell as his Middle East peace negotiator. Of Lebanese and Irish descent and raised as a Maronite, Mitchell played a key role in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland. His experience in bringing the Irish Republican Army and Protestant militias to the negotiating table would serve him in good stand in the Middle East where closing the divide between Palestinian factions and bringing Hamas in from the cold are prerequisites for any peace effort to have a fighting chance of success. Mitchell may have the credibility to gain a degree of Palestinian trust as well as Israeli respect.

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, Mitchell, headed The Mitchell Commision, established in 2000 at a summit in Sharm el Sheikh during a meeting of president Bill Clinton and Middle Eastern leaders as a fact finding mission. The five-member commission headed by Mitchell included European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel; and Norwegian Foreign Minister Thobjoern Jagland. The report called for a freeze on Israeli settlements, a halt to the use of lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators and a halt to punitive measures against the population in the West Bank and Gaza and a Palestinian crackdown in terrorism. The reported was noted for its noted neutralism in discussing Palestinian violence and Israel's attempt to stymie it.

If appointed, Mitchell is likely to be seen by Palestinians as more sensitive to their aspirations and by Israelis as tough but honest negotiator. Mitchell's appointment would signal that Obama is going to free himself of the exclusive relationship that we've had with the Israelis. This is the clearest indication to me that they're trying to inject more balance into the Israeli-U.S. relationship," Aaron David Miller, a public policy analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and former Middle East negotiator told The New York Times.

Mitchell's appointment could well signal change without immediately alienating Israel, spoiled for the last eight years by the uncritical support of the Bush administration. Mitchell "is a prominent symbol of 'evenhandedness,' but he is not regarded as hostile to Israel. As a Senator, he had many supporters in the pro-Israel community, and he generally favored legislation important to the U.S.-Israel relationship. He has many friends among Israel's leaders, and in the American pro-Israel community, says former senior American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) official Steve Rosen on his Obama Mideast Watch blog.

Mitchell will need that appreciation if Israeli polls prove correct that Likud leader Binjami Nethanyahu is the frontrunner in the upcoming February 10 Israeli election. Nethanyahu appears to be benefitting from the fact that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s increased popularity in the wake of the Gaza war is at the expense of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party. Nethanyahu is critical of the government’s decision to declare a ceasefire in Gaza while Hamas still stand over end and a halt to smuggling of arms into Gaza has not been secured.

Rosen says if Mitchell is appointed, Fred Hof of Armitage Associates, the company of former senior State Department official Richard L. Armitage, would be likely to play an important role. Hof is credited with drafting much of the Mitchell. Report.

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