Mideast Envoy George Mitchell Resigns, Amid Frustration, Turf Wars

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 13, 2011.
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Ending a lengthy and unsuccessful drive for Israeli–Arab peace, George Mitchell is stepping down as the Obama administration’s special envoy for the Middle East.

The White announced the former Maine senator’s resignation on Friday, pointing to “personal reasons” for his decision to end his role as negotiator.

“As he returns to his family, George leaves behind a proud legacy of dedicated public service and the country owes him a debt of gratitude for his extraordinary commitment,” said President Obama in a statement released by the White House. “As a nation, we remain committed to peace in the Middle East and to building on George’s hard work and progress toward achieving this goal.”

The resignation of Mitchell, who is 77, while widely rumored for several months, comes days before the administration reaches yet another decision-point in its policy toward the peace process between Arabs and Israelis. President Obama is set to deliver a major Middle East policy speech on May 19 in which he could include for the first time his own guidelines for a final status agreement. A day later Obama will host Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House to discuss Washington’s expectation for Israeli moves to revive the peace process. President Obama may also give a speech at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee following his Middle East address and his meeting with Netanyahu.

The White House sought to assure reporters on Friday that Mitchell’s resignation is not a sign of decreasing U.S. involvement in Middle East peacemaking or of frustration with the lack of progress toward a settlement. “The president’s commitment remains as firm as it was when he took office,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, who added that dealing with the peace process is “a hard issue, an extraordinary hard issue.”

The appointment of Mitchell as Middle East special envoy came on President Obama’s second day in the Oval Office, in January 2009. The swift move and the choice of a well-known veteran politician and statesman for the post highlighted the new administration’s resolve to move Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking to a front burner after it had received low priority during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Mitchell’s Lebanese descent drew early suspicion from the Israelis, as did a report he authored in 2001 calling for an end to Israeli settlement activity. Palestinian Authority leaders, conversely, met his appointment and the administration’s early focus on a settlement freeze with enthusiasm.

But even though Mitchell succeeded in extracting a 10-month moratorium on new building from the Israelis in 2009, peace talks yielded no results. A September 2010 summit in Washington aimed at launching direct talks also failed to lead to a breakthrough and marked, in effect, the beginning of a stalemate in the peace process.

Mitchell tried to remain optimistic regarding the prospects for peace in the Middle East, and frequently repeated the story about his tenure as peace negotiator for Northern Ireland, where he experienced “700 days of failure and one day of success.” But as his 700th day as Middle East envoy passed, frustration among Mitchell and his team members was evident and on the rise. According to activists involved in the process, Mitchell expressed this frustration in private talks, and for the past several months, observers in Washington speculated that his days as special envoy were coming to an end. Several of Mitchell’s key staffers moved on earlier, including Mara Rudman, Mitchell’s chief of staff, who took a position with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mitchell’s sense of frustration stemmed not just from his difficulties lty in getting the governments of Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas to move toward a final status agreement, but also from infighting within the administration. Mitchell, as reported in the Forward was irritated by the increasing role President Obama’s senior adviser Dennis Ross began to play in the peace process. Ross’s portfolio, which originally centered on Iran, was increased to include security ties with Israel. Ross later took on peace process related negotiations with the Netanyahu government and was dispatched to the region several times on behalf of President Obama.

Mitchell, at the same time, reduced his travels to the Middle East and met less frequently with regional players.

Mitchell’s the appointment as Obama’s special Middle East envoy came after a long and successful political career. As a Democratic Senator representing his home state of Maine, Mitchell rose through the ranks to become Senate majority leader in 1989. After leaving the Senate he maintained a high public profile as the Clinton administration’s special envoy for Northern Ireland. Mitchell later headed the federal government’s inquiry commission into the use of steroids in professional baseball. Mitchell also served as chairman of Disney and remained active in a private law firm.

Speaking last May at a fundraiser for the Jewish Primary Day School in Washington, Mitchell recalled that after being offered the position of Middle East envoy, he called 10 of his friends to seek advice. The reply of the first six, he said, was “are you crazy?” Mitchell also told the audience of a promise he made to his wife, who was worried that he’d forgotten his five-year involvement in Ireland. Mitchell promised it wouldn’t take him so long this time. “So I told all the leaders of the Middle East, this cannot take five years.”

In his resignation letter to Obama, Mitchell said his intention was to serve only for two years. “I strongly support your vision of comprehensive peace in the Middle East and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your administration,” Mitchell wrote.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that David Hale, the deputy Middle East envoy, will temporarily replace Mitchell.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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