Obama sends Mitchell to the Middle East

January 26, 2009 9:33:17 PM PST
Launching the Obama administration's first Mideast peace mission, former Sen. George J. Mitchell brings a track record of patience and persistence in protracted negotiations. And Mitchell, described Monday by President Barack Obama as the man who "speaks for us" on Mideast issues, knows long odds when he sees them.

At an earlier State Department ceremony announcing his appointment as Obama's special envoy for Middle East peace, Mitchell recalled his role in producing Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord in 1998.

"In the negotiations which led to that agreement, we had 700 days of failure and one day of success," he said. "For most of the time, progress was nonexistent or very slow. So I understand the feelings of those who may be discouraged about the Middle East."

Mitchell, 75, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Obama at the White House on Monday before Mitchell embarked on what the State Department said would be at least an eight-day journey.

The decision to appoint a presidential envoy, and to dispatch him to the Middle East so early in the administration, is a sign that Obama intends to take a more active approach to the peace process than did his predecessor.

"The charge that Sen. Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress," Obama said before a phalanx of photographers in the Cabinet Room of the White House, with Mitchell at his side. "And when I say progress, not just photo ops but progress that is concrete."

His first stop Tuesday is to be Egypt, followed by visits to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. His schedule includes stops in Paris and London early next week on his way back to Washington.

In an interview Monday with Al-Arabiya television, Obama said he felt it important to "get engaged right away" in the Mideast. He said he directed Mitchell to talk to "all the major parties involved" and that his administration would craft an approach after that.

"What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating," Obama said in the interview.

Obama reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel as an ally, and to its right to defend itself. But he suggested that Israel has hard choices to make and that his administration would press harder for it to do so.

"We cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people," Obama said.

State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said Mitchell will be in "listening mode" and will report back to the president and to Clinton with advice on how to attempt to get the peace process back on track.

Wood said the Mitchell talks will be wide-ranging, could be expanded to include other countries and likely will touch on Iran, whose support for Hamas and Hezbollah is key to the Mideast conflict.

Mitchell served in the Senate as a Democrat from Maine from 1980 to 1995, the final six years as majority leader. In 2000-01, Mitchell headed a fact-finding committee on Mideast violence that called for commitments by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to immediately and unconditionally end their fighting. It urged a cooling-off period and other steps toward peace, but it did not lead to lasting results.

The April 2001 Mitchell report urged Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank and called on the Palestinians to prevent gunmen in Palestinian-populated areas from firing on Israeli towns and cities. The settlements, as well as Israeli concern over rocket and other attacks on its soil, remain sticking points today.

Retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who has known Mitchell since they were classmates at Bowdoin College in 1950, said Mitchell's 2001 conclusions and recommendations were "entirely right" for the circumstances at that time.

"It unfortunately was something that the (Bush) administration was very slow to pick up on," Pickering said.

Pickering, who served in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East, said Mitchell has the right combination of attributes to succeed at his newest assignment.

"He's a man of great patience, of fantastic balance, of fantastic integrity and enormous persistence, and those are all the qualities that will make it possible for him to make progress on this," Pickering said in a telephone interview Monday. "I would think there would be nobody better equipped than George Mitchell to take on this very difficult task."

Robert Tyrer, co-president of the Cohen Group consulting firm and a former Senate staffer who has known Mitchell since 1976, called him dogged and disciplined, with a knack for handling tough negotiations.

"I don't think I've ever known anyone as unflappable," Tyrer said. Mitchell is almost 11 years older than when he managed to persuade all sides in the Northern Ireland conflict to sign up to a power-sharing deal - a task that he wrote afterward in his book, "Making Peace," pushed him to the brink of exhaustion. He recalled the moment he learned the accord had been clinched.

"I took a deep breath and felt tears welling in my eyes - tears of exhaustion, tears of relief, tears of joy," he wrote. "I had to sit down."

At the State Department ceremony last week where he accepted his Mideast assignment, Mitchell spoke of the Northern Ireland ordeal.

"From my experience there, I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended," he said. "Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings."


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