Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama and the Middle East (updated)

George J. Mitchell, according to the Washington Post, will be named U.S. envoy to the Middle East specifically to focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This will be announced after Hillary Clinton is confirmed as Secretary of State by the Senate. If this appointment holds up, it is very significant news for several reasons [the appointment is now confirmed]:
  • Mitchell earned kudos for his historic role in peacemaking in Northern Ireland.
  • He also co-chaired the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee (April 30, 2001), otherwise known as the Mitchell Report. The Mitchell Plan morphed into the "Road Map," What is noteworthy about the 2001 report is that it envisaged simultaneous confidence building measures by the Palestinians and by Israel. The Israelis--with the support of the Bush administration--interpreted the confidence building measures as "you first." In the report, halting violence was a shared Israeli and Palestinian responsibility. However, from Israel's view, the Palestinians were expected to stop violence completely before Israel would implement its obligations, for instance that "the GOI should freeze all settlement activity, including the "natural growth" of existing settlements." [This misstatement of the report continues, as evidenced by this Haaretz commentary.] In other words, the Mitchell recommendations were balanced, but there was never a serious effort at balanced implementation.
  • Also, Mitchell, as a former Senator and a respected statesman, is not going to be pushed around very easily by anyone short of the President. On this blog, and elsewhere, I have emphasized that well-meaning but failed peace processors, such as Dennis Ross should me kept well away from the Arab-Israeli conflict. In Ross' case, he has already had two bites at the apple, he has demonstrated his imbalance and bias. In fact, Ross bears some responsibility for the corrupted understanding of the 2001 Mitchell report.
  • Finally, Mitchell is close to some smart, realistic policy experts, and I sense that he will engage their good work as well.

In short, given the possibilities, I think the choice of Mitchell is a good one.

[Fred Hof was the assistant to Mitchell in 2001, and I gather that was the primary author of the report. This link provides a speech that Hof presented last spring in Jerusalem. I met him 30 years ago, and I have always been impressed by his good sense. He is connected to some leading realist policymakers in Washington. I do not know if he will re-engage with the appointment of Mitchell, but I certainly hope that he does.]

In his interview as President-elect with the Washington Post editorial board is worth listening to for a variety of reasons, including his comments on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. He emphasizes an early start, the need to build trust on both sides, and he underlines that the Arab-Israeli zone is connected to other foreign policy challenges, including Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. This is quite a sea change from the Bush approach, which was to deny, emphatically, linkage.

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