Washington — Judging by the headlines in Israel’s daily tabloids, the first task of President Obama’s new Middle East envoy is earning the trust of the Israelis.
“Before the elections: Mitchell is coming to pressure,” blared the lead front-page headline in Ma’ariv, referring to former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell, who arrived in Israel from Cairo January 28.
Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest paper, carried the headline “The pressure begins” on its front page, accompanied by a photo of Obama and Mitchell as the latter prepared to depart for his first shuttle through the region. Yediot helpfully added in a front-page sub-head that “Mitchell defines himself as an Arab-American.”
Meanwhile, in the usually sober Haaretz, veteran columnist Yoel Marcus observed that while Obama is surrounded by Jewish advisers, he chose to send as envoy to Israel “a goy of Lebanese descent.”
Facing such a suspicious welcome, the Obama administration moved quickly to explain that Mitchell’s first visit to the region would be confined to addressing the aftermath of the Gaza war and hearing out the parties to the conflict. Any discussion of long-range solutions or concrete steps to promote a two-state solution will wait until the administration completes a planned policy review of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, officials said.
Yet Obama’s renewed drive for Middle East peace comes as Israel seems to be on the verge of turning away from the negotiation track. Recent public opinion surveys suggest a likely shift of power to the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, when Israelis go the polls February 10 to elect a new Knesset. Netanyahu has vowed to focus on “economic peace” with the Palestinians rather than a territorial-political solution.
Prior to leaving for the region, Mitchell briefed Israeli and Arab diplomats on the purpose of his mission. According to diplomatic sources, Mitchell stressed that he will deal only with the situation in Gaza, where the dust is just settling from Israel’s three-week military campaign against Hamas. He also said he would spend time listening to regional leaders.
This theme was echoed by President Obama in his January 26 interview with Al-Arabiya TV, his first formal television interview as president, which was broadcast throughout the Arab world. “What I told him is start by listening,” Obama said, referring to Mitchell, “because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues — and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved. So let’s listen.”
Listening, say knowledgeable observers, is one of Mitchell’s strengths and a possible key to his success in brokering his best-known diplomatic triumph, the 1998 Northern Ireland peace accord.
“A lot of his time was devoted to listening, instead of trying to direct,” said Pamela Aall, vice president of the congressionally-financed U.S. Institute of Peace.
Aall, who has edited several books on conflict resolution, said that Mitchell’s patience and attention to building trust between the parties was an important element in achieving the so-called Good Friday Accord. “One of the similarities between Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the complete breakdown of trust,” she said.
But for Mitchell, building trust with Israelis could be a more difficult task due to lingering resentment over the 2001 Mitchell Report. That document, authored by Mitchell, called on Israel to freeze all Jewish settlement activity on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The report was commissioned by an international summit to examine the causes of the Second Intifada, which had broken out the previous fall. The report later became the basis for the Bush “road map,” as it was called, for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A major pro-Israel activist in Washington argued that settlements are not likely to be as much of a deal breaker as they were in 2001, since Israel subsequently agreed to stop settlement expansion during the 2007 Annapolis Conference. He would only speak anonymously because of the issue’s political sensitivity.
Most new settlement building is concentrated in areas west of the separation barrier, which Israel expects will mark the future border. But data collected by Peace Now, the dovish Israeli advocacy group, indicate an overall increase in new Israeli construction in the territories.
During the Bush years, Washington did little to enforce a freeze on West Bank settlement expansion. This policy might change now. Pro-Israel activists in touch with the incoming foreign policy team believe that any drive to renew the peace process will include a call to stop settlement activity.
“We already know what Mitchell thinks about it,” said an activist in Washington, who would also speak only on condition of anonymity due to political sensitivities. “We just don’t know how tough they’ll get.”
Another pro-Israel lobbyist added that while some viewed the 2001 Mitchell report’s emphasis on settlement activity as “inappropriate,” now “people are certainly looking forward” to working with him.
Given Obama’s determination not to rush the presentation of a new U.S. peace plan, any such program will likely be rolled out only after the February 10 Knesset elections. The timing could mean that when Mitchell does present a plan to leaders in the region, he will be dealing with a new Israeli government led by the Likud party, which does not support the establishment of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has said he believes peace should be built “from the bottom up” with a focus on developing the Palestinian economy.
Mitchell could thus ultimately find himself envoy in the midst of a renewed source of tension between Washington and Jerusalem.
Still, in their July meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu and Obama reportedly had a friendly exchange. The Likud leader later told a visiting congressman that in his conversation with then-candidate Obama he said: “We are both not as extreme as people think we are.”