As President Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell might have been expected to play the role of honest broker during last week's visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah, sounding out Israeli and Palestinian leaders about their views of the peace process, while keeping an open mind about eventual bridging proposals from the White House.
But that's not what happened. Instead of acting as a fair, even-handed mediator, Mitchell assumed the role of salesman, dictating in advance to Israel what concessions and compromsies Obama expected from the Jewish state, while leaving the Palestinian side off the hook in terms of its obligations to show some reciprocity, flexibility and pragmatism in any reneweal of negotiations.
Thus, Mitchell's visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah had virtually nothing to do with peacemaking. Rather, he laid down two markers on behalf of Obama -- both highly injurious to Israel's security.
The only solution to the conflict, Mitchell declared, is the two-state solution, which he presented with no strings attached. According to Mitchell, creation of a Palestinian state, per se, will be the magic wand to bring peace to the region. George W. Bush, the first American president to endorse Palestinian statehood, had a quite differnet plan -- the "road map," which conditions a Palestinian state on total, permanent cessation of Palestinian terrorism and anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian media, schools, libraries and mosques. Or, as Bush put it, before there could be a Palestine, there had to be guarantees that it really would be "untainted by terrorism." That stipulation is gone from the Obama/Mitchell playbook.
To make matters even worse for Israel, Mitchell kept assuring Palestinian leaders that the Arab "peace initiative" would become part and parcel of Washington's drive for a two-state solution. The Arab plan actually is a prescription for the end of Israel as a Jewish state because it's predicated on a "right of return" for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to flood back into Israel. Drafted on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, it also would put under Palestinian rule all of Judaism's most sacred sites in the Holy Land -- Temple Mount where stood the First and Second Temples, the Western Wall, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs -- every vestige of Jewish historial links in Jerusalem's Old City and Hebron. Safeguarding these holy sites would be entrusted to the same Palestinians who have used Rachel's Tomb near Bethlehem for snipers' target practice and who destroyed Joseph's Tomb near Nablus.
Mitchell, in his actual role as Obama's salesman, skipped all these details. Instead, he tried to mollify skeptical Israeli leaders by telling them that Obama wants a Palestinian state "alongside the Jewish state of Israel." This, however, turned out to be empty sales talk. No sooner had Mitchell moved to Ramallah than the Palestinian need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state disappeared from Mitchell's talking points. In Ramallah, he focused entirely on Palestinian sovereignty -- with no strings attached.
Thus, there was no challenge from Mitchell when Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, declared flatly that the Palestinians would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Mitchell's silence in the face of Erekat's rejection of Israel as a Jewish state was perhaps the most revealing part of his trip.
Nor did Mitchell bother to acknowledge that the existence of two irreconcilable mini-Palestinian states -- Hamastan in Gaza and Fatahstan in the West Bank -- is the real obstacle to progress on the peace front -- not the security concerns of Israeli leaders who understandably are not eager to create a third terror front on their eastern border to supplement terror threats from Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south.
In fact, and not so coincidentally, as Mitchell spoke warm words to Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Hamas leaders surfaced from their hideouts in Gaza to proclaim that they would never, under any circumstances, recognize Israel -- another development that escaped Mitchell's notice.
From the cards Obama and Mitchell already have played, there are two possible conclusions for what's animating their Mideast diplomacy. It's based either on anti-Likud bias or sheer amateurishness.
Obama, in previous pronouncements, has gone out of his way to malign Likud leaders, seeing them as incompatible with peacemaking. If he remains stuck in that rut, Mitchell's job is merely to set up Israel for a fall, while making points with the Arab world.
A more benign explanation is that Obama, when it comes to the Middle East, has created his own never-never land and blinds himself to any and all realities that don't fit his pure, peacemaking instincts. Obama simply ignores hard, nitty-gritty boulders on his happy-talk gambol on the yellow-brick road to a Mideast Oz.
Call it Nikolas Sarkozy's take on Obama. The French president, during a supposedly private dinner with members of the French parliament, gave them his less-than flattering assessment of Obama, according to leaks published by the Paris media and picked up by the New York Times. Sarkozy gives Obama high marks for personal charisma, but faults him as a "weak, inexperienced" leader who "never ran a ministry in his life" before assuming the top post. The French president confided that he invited Obama to join him in Normandy in June to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day. "I'm going to ask him to walk on the Channel," Sarkozy related, then added: "and he'll do it."
Obama as amateur or Obama as viscerally anti-Likud, either way, to borrow Bette Davis' famous warning in All About Eve: Israel better fasten its seat belt because it's going to be a bumpy ride.