Obama to name George Mitchell Middle East Envoy - WaPo

The Washington Post is reporting this morning that President Obama will name former Secretary of State George Mitchell as envoy to the Middle East:

As one of his first actions, Obama plans to name former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as his Middle East envoy, aides said, sending a signal that the new administration intends to move quickly to engage warring Israelis and Palestinians in efforts to secure the peace.

Mitchell's appointment will follow this afternoon's expected Senate vote to confirm Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. And tomorrow afternoon, aides said, Obama will convene a meeting of his National Security Council to launch a reassessment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By the end of the week, Obama plans to issue an executive order to eventually shut down the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to lay out a new process for dealing with about 250 detainees remaining at the prison.

The actions -- to be taken before the entire White House staff has found their desks -- reflect the frenetic activity among Obama's national security advisers that has been taking place behind the scenes since Election Day.

Previously, Mitchell assisted in bringing about the peace accords in Ireland. He is considered smart, tough, and very patient - attributes that will no doubt come in handy as he attempts to work a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

At the Mother Jones Blog, Bruce Falconer comments:

 At first glance, Mitchell may not seem the most obvious choice for the Middle East envoy job. Others have far more experience in the region, and Mitchell's success in Northern Ireland does not necessarily translate to the intractable conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. But what you may not know is that Mitchell is himself of Lebanese ancestry; his father, John Kilroy, was an Irishman adopted by a Lebanese family, and his mother was a Lebanese Maronite Christian.

More than that, Mitchell had a brief, albeit unsuccessful, run as Middle East envoy during President Bill Clinton's last-minute attempt to broker peace there before he left office. The so-called "Mitchell Commission" studied the conflict in detail for several months before releasing a report in April 2001 to the newly inaugurated Bush administration.

As with his work in Northern Ireland, Mitchell suggested in the 2001 report (available here) that no peace could come to the Middle East until both sides stopped the violence and steeled themselves for difficult negotiations. Beyond that, though, he affected a more balanced approach to the peace process, calling not only for the Palestinians to renounce terrorism, but for the Israelis to cease using economic blockades against the Palestinians and to halt the construction of new settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

There were Israel supporters who objected to the report’s views on settlements- a total freeze was advocated, including that of natural growth (see below); there were Palestinian supporters disappointed that the report did not call for international observers to serve on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. The views towards settlements were not a surprise-that issue often rankles diplomats. Ariel Sharon accepted the Commission’s recommendations. The report’s failure to call for an international force in the West bank and Gaza Strip probably disappointed Samantha Power-a foreign policy expert close to Barack Obama who controversially advocated the imposition of such an international force . The Israelis would resist such a force since it would constrain their anti-terror operations. The history of the Middle East is marked by failure of such international groups to prevent terror while shielding terrorists from Israeli defensive actions.

quick facts about the Mitchell Commission report:

The report calls on Palestinians to:

  • make a 100% effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators
  • prevent gunmen from using Palestinian areas to fire on Israeli positions
It calls on the Israeli side to:

  • freeze all new construction of settlements
  • stop the Israeli army firing on unarmed demonstrators
Peace 'culture' under threat

The report calls on both sides to "act quickly to pull the region back from the abyss" and warns that:

  • fear, hate, anger and frustration has risen on both sides
  • the "culture of peace" carefully established over the last decade is in danger of being destroyed
  • there is a growing sense of futility and despair, and a growing resort to violence
  • the situation will keep on getting worse unless the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority take swift and decisive action
·         Despite the recommendations, the report steers clear of apportioning blame.

·         It determines that a visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon on 28 September 2000 - well before he became prime minister - "did not cause" the current violence.

·         But, it concludes, the visit was poorly timed and its provocative effect should have been foreseen.

·         The Palestinians have said that the unannounced visit to the site - which is holy to both Muslims and Jews - triggered the violence; Israel accuses the Palestinians of using the visit as an excuse to riot.

·         Palestinian leaders have embraced the commission's findings, despite disappointments that it did not back their demands for an international observer force in Gaza and on the West Bank. 

On the other hand, the fact that M.J. Rosenberg, a critic of Israel who is also critical of many Israel supporters in America, was happy to hear the rumor that Mitchell would be appointed the Middle East envoy. Others will be happy that Daniel Kurtzer was NOT appointed the Middle East envoy as had been rumored.

Steve Rosen, a former high-level  American Israel Public Affairs Committee staffer and one of the most astute Middle East and Capitol Hill observers

If in fact Mitchell is appointed, it will be taken in the region as a message that Obama intends to pursue a policy less closely coordinated with Israel, and less fully under the control of the Secretary of State. Mitchell is of partly Lebanese descent, and was brought up as a Maronite Catholic. To many, he is a prominent symbol of "evenhandedness," but he is not regarded as hostile to Israel. As a Senator, he had many supporters in the pro-Israel community, and he generally favored legislation important to the U.S.-Israel relationship. He has many friends among Israel's leaders, and in the American pro-Israel community.

He is best remembered in the Mideast for the Commission he headed in 2000-2001, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism.

Its final statement, known as the
"Mitchell Report," very strongly emphasized Israel's legitimate security interests. But it received more press attention for its conclusion that Israel "should freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements...The kind of security cooperation desired by [Israel] cannot for long coexist with settlement activity."

Daniel Pipes
dissected the report in the Washington Times, particularly its studious neutrality between the perpetrators of terrorist acts and those trying to defend themselves. But it should also be noted that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepted the Mitchell Report as a basis for negotiations. Much of the report was drafted by Fred Hof of Armitage Associate, who may re-emerge if Mitchell is appointed.

Armitage Associates has business interests with Middle Eastern governments; there might be some concern generated if Fred Hof or others from the Armitage group becomes involved in Middle East peacemaking efforts.

Rosen explicates on the settlement issue:

The concept of a freeze on “natural growth” of settlements is opposed in Israel not only by the Likud, but also is rejected by the leadership of the Labor Party and most other Zionist parties. Israeli governments have at times accepted a freeze on the construction of new settlements, and on the geographic expansion of existing settlements. But they have reserved the right to continue what Shimon Peres called “vertical growth”, such as adding a room to an existing home or building a new home inside the geographic perimeter of the existing “construction line” of an established settlement. Also, Israelis generally distinguish between construction inside the settlement “blocs” that are expected to remain.

Given that the Likud party now is leading in the polls in the face of February elections in Israel, a wrinkle may be in the process of developing between the policies of Israel and America. Barack Obama expressed some discomfort on the campaign trail with Americans who judged candidates by how closely they hewed to Likud positions.
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