Hope is a rare commodity in the Israel-Palestine conflict, with Israel’s devastating three-week war on Gaza seeming to banish it from the region altogether. The attack has only managed to heighten support for Hamas among Palestinians and throughout the Arab and Muslim world, with a corresponding plunge in the status of the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas, along with the United States and its allies in the region. And by most forecasts, the upcoming Israeli elections will bring back to power Benjamin Netanyahu, who dedicated his first term as prime minister to destroying the Oslo peace process; he now calls for escalation of the war against Hamas, and by extension all Palestinians, and refuses to consider any withdrawal from the illegally occupied territories.
Barack Obama’s appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy was received as a welcome ray of sunlight by many who desire a just resolution of the conflict, from liberal Jewish lobbies like J Street and the Israel Policy Forum to Arab leaders around the world. And with good reason: Mitchell is widely recognized as a key player in forging the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. As President Clinton’s special envoy, Mitchell persevered through years of bitter, often despairing negotiations between hardened enemies before emerging with a settlement–one that holds to this day. One of the keys to his success was that he was considered a scrupulously impartial broker by all sides. Among the useful lessons from the GFA, Mitchell has argued, is that all parties to such conflicts need to be included, even those associated with violence, and that preconditions, especially those related to ideological goals, “ought to be kept to an absolute minimum.”
Mitchell has also received praise for his leadership of a commission established in 2000 to analyze the causes of the intifada that had broken out that fall. The Mitchell report, released in 2001, was cautious but scrupulously evenhanded, condemning Palestinian terrorism but also Israel’s disproportionate use of force, most of it against unarmed demonstrators. It also criticized Israeli settlement expansion, which had enraged Palestinians and undermined the Oslo talks. Most crucially, the report refuted claims, then widespread in the US media, that the intifada had been cooked up by the Palestinian Authority.
The fate of Mitchell’s new mission depends in good part on President Obama. Will the president have the courage to allow Mitchell to apply the lessons learned from his experience in high-stakes conflict resolution? Will both be able to withstand the powerful pressure of those on the right who condemned Mitchell’s appointment because, as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League put it with astounding candor, “Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed. But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been even-handed. It has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical US support. So I’m concerned. I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach.”
If Mitchell is allowed to do his job, he might acknowledge that, whatever one thinks of Hamas’s ideology, it is a democratically elected representative of the Palestinian people and thus needs to be engaged–just as Sinn Fein (and indirectly, the IRA) was in Northern Ireland. He’ll recognize that while Palestinian terror is unacceptable, so too is the gigantic Israeli settlement enterprise, which has been stealing land and violating international law for decades. He’ll condemn not only Hamas’s rocket attacks but also the Israeli army’s staggering levels of violence, using the most advanced US-supplied weaponry against heavily populated civilian areas, as well as Israel’s closures, checkpoints and separation wall, which have destroyed the Palestinian economy, stoking the despair that leads to extremism.
Obama’s selection of George Mitchell was an inspired choice. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, recently said, “When I read the Irish peace plan, I remember thinking, Would that someone could do this for the Middle East.” Obama has found the man for the job. Now Mitchell should be allowed to do it.