George Mitchell announced Friday that he will leave his post as President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, though the former senator from Maine and internationally known mediator insisted he’s not headed for retirement any time soon.
“I’ve seen very little of my family for the past couple of years and obviously that’s a factor,” Mitchell said in an interview with MaineToday Media. “But it’s not the only factor.”
For more than two years, Mitchell has tried unsuccessfully to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. That already- difficult task, he said, has been further complicated in recent months by popular uprisings in other countries throughout the Middle East.
“This is, I think, a moment in time when the (Israeli and Palestinian) parties are considering how best to proceed, given the events in the Middle East that have created a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety throughout the region, including among the Israelis and Palestinians,” Mitchell said. “The natural human tendency, when there is turbulence and uncertainty, is to take a pause, reassess and then decide how you want to proceed.”
Given that, he said, “it seemed about right” for him to step down now.
Obama lauded Mitchell’s work in a telephone interview with MaineToday Media, saying that Mitchell played a critical role early on in persuading the Israelis and Palestinians to “renew their interest in moving the ball down the field.”
“George is by any measure one of the finest public servants our nation has ever had,” Obama said. “He is also a good friend.”
Mitchell expressed disappointment that his latest peace mission, unlike his successful effort in 1998 to broker the Good Friday Agreement between longtime Catholic and Protestant adversaries in Northern Ireland, did not end in diplomatic triumph.
But, he said, “I’ve never undertaken a major assignment in which I was assured the outcome from the beginning.”
Mitchell said peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which resumed briefly in September only to stall late last year over the future of Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, advanced the starting point for future negotiations.
“In those months, we gained valuable insights into the respective positions of the two parties,” he said. “They pretty much know what the other side’s views are now, and the question is how do we get them back into talks to exchange those views directly, instead of through us.”
Mitchell, 77, said he told the president when he took the job in January 2009 that it would be for two years. He said he privately informed Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on April 6 that he intended to step aside, effective May 20.
“The president was very gracious,” Mitchell said after a morning meeting with Obama in the Oval Office.
Obama recalled Mitchell’s warning before he accepted the Middle East assignment that it would not span Obama’s four-year term.
“I told him, ‘Well, give me what you can,’ ” Obama said. “This was entirely George’s decision — and I completely understand.”
Mitchell’s envoy assignment was just the latest chapter in a career that has taken him from U.S. attorney for Maine to the federal bench in Maine to the U.S. Senate — where he served from 1980-95 and was majority leader for six years — to several high-profile diplomatic and business roles.
Mitchell’s career in politics dates to his time as an aide in the mid-1960s to Democratic U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine.
Perhaps Mitchell’s most famous and successful stint was as the architect of the peace accord that was passed overwhelmingly by voters in Northern Ireland 13 years ago this month.
He noted, when Obama named him Middle East envoy, that the Northern Ireland negotiations consisted of “700 days of failure and one day of success. For most of the time, progress was nonexistent or very slow.”
From 2004-06, Mitchell was chairman of the Walt Disney Co. In 2007, he led an investigation of the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball.
Mitchell had Middle East diplomatic experience before he became Obama’s envoy.
The 2001 Mitchell Report recommended that Israel stop building settlements on the West Bank and urged Palestinian leaders to crack down on the firing of rockets from Palestinian areas at Israeli targets. The report did not produce the desired results.
Several Middle East experts said Friday that they don’t blame Mitchell for the lack of progress, which had more to do with a failed White House strategy and the explosive changes in the region, including rival Palestinian groups agreeing to form a government together.
Mitchell “never really owned” the administration’s Middle East portfolio, which was run out of the White House more than the State Department, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“There were always a lot of people involved,” Ottaway said.
Also, Ottaway noted, negotiations ground to a halt for reasons beyond Mitchell’s control, including the administration’s position on the building of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and Israel’s refusal to negotiate with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas and Fatah.
“Mitchell was not really doing anything, and I think that is why he resigned,” Ottaway said. “It is not his fault. It is not that he did a bad job as envoy, it is just that the game was played more by the White House than by the State Department, and now there is no game. There are no negotiations.”
Khaled Elgindy, a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, agreed that Mitchell had a difficult task to begin with, then had to represent an administration with a disjointed Middle East strategy.
“It was not a problem with his negotiating style, it was not a problem with his priorities,” Elgindy said. “He is a very experienced and intelligent man, who is capable of doing this. Ultimately, this is the result of the administration being all over the map on this issue.”
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said Mitchell’s work could go no further because of a “nonexistent peace process, number one, and little chance of getting it to a serious negotiation, let alone brokering a settlement.”
Miller called Mitchell “probably the most talented negotiator” in the diplomatic arena since James Baker, who served as secretary of state in the George H.W. Bush administration.
Obama, saying Mitchell had left “very hard shoes to fill,” named Mitchell’s deputy, David Hale, as acting envoy.
The president is scheduled to make a speech next week in Washington on the state of the Middle East. Also next week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah II will visit Washington.
Looking beyond his departure at the end of next week, Mitchell said he has “no intention to stop working.” He declined to speculate, however, on where his career might take him.
“I will spend more time in Maine this summer,” Mitchell said, referring to his vacation home in Seal Harbor. “Much more than I did last year.”
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