The Mitchell Mission


Published January 28, 2009, issue of February 06, 2009.
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Embarking on his mission as President Obama’s special Middle East peace negotiator, George Mitchell carries a burden of hopes and expectations almost too weighty for one pair of shoulders. For nearly a decade, politicians, diplomats and ordinary people around the world have watched in alarm as the Oslo peace process dissolved into relentless violence. Ever since, the world community has waited for someone or something to appear and turn despair, as if by magic, into hope. Last Election Day, millions decided that Barack Obama might be that magician. It’s George Mitchell’s task to turn the hope into reality.

There is ample cause for skepticism. Fifteen years after Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, Israelis and Palestinians are more suspicious than ever of each other’s intentions. The Palestinian Authority, Israel’s supposed partner in peacemaking, has lost nearly all credibility. Hamas, the authority’s Islamic extremist rival, stands defiantly in the way of meaningful negotiations, firmly ensconced in its Gaza stronghold and contemptuous of the very idea of peace with Israel. Mitchell has a steep hill to climb.

Still, failure isn’t preordained. Entering an arena in which personalities do much to shape events — think how the Middle East might have looked without an Arafat, or with a Rabin still living — Mitchell brings a résumé as one of the world’s most determined and successful negotiators. He has the full backing of a new administration that enjoys enormous good will around the world. Obama, by scheduling two public appearances with Mitchell in his first week in office, made clear that Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking will be a signature issue of his presidency.

This is an important change. The eight-year absence of an American administration willing to hold the players to their commitments helped to harden stances on both sides of the conflict. Knowing the superpower wouldn’t intervene, each side felt free to break its promises — stopping violence, rounding up weapons, dismantling outposts, allowing free passage — on the excuse that the other side hadn’t kept its promises. Not surprisingly, trust collapsed on both sides. But trust that was lost can be regained.

It’s telling that Mitchell’s most vocal critics focus on his advocacy of compromise as the key to peace. The critics complain that he doesn’t demand true justice, as they define it, but rather seeks a middle ground between good and evil. They call him naïve for believing all conflicts can be resolved. Deep down, they don’t want to resolve this conflict but to win it. If they can’t get everything they want, they’re willing to wait.

But time is running out. Most Israelis know that if Israel doesn’t reach a peace agreement and leave the West Bank very soon, it will find in another decade that it is no longer a Jewish democracy. Israel’s pro-Western Arab neighbors, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, fear that if Israel and the Palestinians don’t settle their differences soon, then anger on the Arab street will boil over and force those moderates to abandon the peace option.

Total victory is no longer an option, if it ever was. This is a time to put war aside and give diplomacy a chance. Friends of Israel, those who care about Israel’s future, need to cast off their doubts and give full-throated support to George Mitchell.

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