Can George Mitchell Astound the Skeptics, Again?

This article also appears in The Huffington Post.img

In the hectic days of Presidential campaigning of July 2008, then candidate Obama took time to visit the Middle East and Europe. That trip will be most remembered for the huge crowds in Berlin and basketball shots at Camp Arifjan U.S. Army base in Kuwait, but the words Barack Obama spoke in one of the ostensibly less memorable stops on that trip, in Amman, gained great resonance this week. In the Jordanian capital on July 22nd, Senator Obama made this commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace: “…my goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I’m sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs.”

Yesterday, he began to make good on that pledge with the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell to the position of special envoy for Middle East peace. Mitchell’s new appointment closes a circle of sorts — he was the last Middle East peace appointee of President Bill Clinton (October 2000), and will be the first of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Mitchell announcement came after eight years during which there has been no American peace envoy, and the substance of the Mitchell’s previous work on Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine is both attracting attention and igniting a precious, if cautious, spark of hope that progress toward peace might just be possible.

In April 2001, George Mitchell delivered the report of a fact-finding commission that he headed, assessing the previous year’s outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence and how it might be brought to an end (see here). That report set the gold standard for understanding the conflict and the motivations of the different actors. Had Mitchell’s recommendations been implemented by the Bush administration, the region might now look very different. The report eschewed apportioning of blame, calling instead for a ceasefire, a cooling-off period, mutual confidence-building measures and a return to credible political negotiations, without which violence could be expected to resume.

Mitchell was uncompromising on the need for Israel’s legitimate security concerns to be addressed. He was also unequivocal in drawing the connection between the political environment and the security climate. For instance, on the impact of settlements, the Mitchell Report had the following to say: “A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the Government of Israel freezes all settlement construction activity.” The report’s recommendations did not though receive the active political backing of President Bush.

Despite the appearance of similarity to 2001 in today’s Israeli-Palestinian strife, especially following the latest Gaza crisis, were Mitchell to produce a new report, its findings would likely highlight a rather changed landscape. The six percent of the Palestinian territories constituted by Gaza is settlement free, but is now separated from the West Bank not just geographically, but also politically. Fatah has lost its monopoly on political power and Hamas has entered the political arena, won parliamentary elections, and probably been strengthened by the latest conflagration. Israel, too, will likely experience political change in next month’s elections with Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party poised to return to the premiership.

Current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have an unreal quality to them, seeming distanced from, and almost irrelevant to, the respective societies. The negotiators might consider each other to be partners but their peoples’ are still locked into an adversarial and violent relationship.

This is where special envoy Mitchell’s Northern Ireland experience might be most relevant, even if no two situations are fully analogous. George Mitchell served as U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland from 1995 to 1998. His Ireland strategy was to be inclusive, to bring the hardliners inside the political process, be patient, get parties into a room who had never met before but who held the key to the legitimacy of a process and for the only conditions for entry to be behavior related (a commitment to pursuing exclusively peaceful means), not ideological or political (recognizing a united Ireland or the permanence of Union with the British mainland, for instance).

Writing about the ‘Irish Lessons For Peace‘ in the International Herald Tribune in May 2007 (together with Richard Haass), Mitchell suggested that “those previously associated with violent groups” should be brought in, preconditions be kept to an “absolute minimum”, parties be allowed to “hold on to their dreams”, and that sanctions be imposed for backsliding on commitments. All sound advice for anyone seeking to overcome the flaws in the current Middle East peace process.

Could a distinction for instance be drawn between the political wing of Hamas – the Change and Reform Party that won elections, and its military wing – the Izz-Al-Din al-Qassam brigades? Drawing a similar distinction between the political wing of the Republican nationalist movement – Sinn Fein – and the military IRA played a significant role in facilitating progress during key moments of the Irish process (and at times the same line has been pursued with the Basque separatist movement Herri Batasuna which competed in elections, and the ETA militant group).

While early U.S. engagement with Hamas is unlikely (and perhaps premature), other third parties might prod Hamas in this direction and away from violence, with a credible claim that a seat at the table of a meaningful political process awaits them. A division of labor might, for instance, make sense here, with Europeans or other regional actors (Turkey or Qatar, perhaps) conducting exploratory talks with the political Change and Reform wing of Hamas, while the U.S. adheres to a more rigid position. Mitchell’s painstaking work in moving both Republican and Unionist militias away from violence and in gradually addressing the issue of de-commissioning of arms is also worth remembering.

In accepting his new envoy appointment, Senator Mitchell was not shy in setting an ambitious target: “There is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings (Mitchell at the State Department, 1/22/09).”img

Ironically, his first challenges may comes less from the Israelis and Palestinians that he will meet on his travels and more from the skeptics and naysayers in the Middle East peace industry back home in Washington D.C. He should expect to hear lots of “it can’t be done” refrains, but as Mitchell himself noted speaking in Israel just last month: “In negotiations which led up to that agreement [Good Friday agreement] we had seven hundred days of failure and one day of success.” New thinking is needed and a determination to create that one day of success for Israel/Palestine.

Some of Senator Mitchell’s other observations from these previous postings are just as worth re-calling and applying in his new role. From Ireland we see that economic improvements were only sustainable alongside political progress, that political empowerment from back home in Washington is crucial to success and that an externally driven peace plan and diplomatic leadership can break a local political impasse.

It is clear too from George Mitchell’s own book recounting his Ireland experience, “Making Peace: The Inside Story of the Making of the Good Friday Agreement”, that skills finely tuned in the U.S. Senate can be put to effective use – hard-nose brokering of deals, stoical patience, and the imposition of deadlines when needed.

In one of the most dramatic scenes of all in Northern Ireland’s history, in May of 2007 at Stormont, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness stood alongside the DUP’s Ian Paisley, as Deputy and First Ministers respectively (and erstwhile, sworn enemies), and declared that the peace work in Ireland had “confounded the critics and astounded the skeptics.” Mitchell’s task in the Middle East will be to again confound and astound and to realize an equally historic moment.