George Mitchell’s resignation as President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East was yet another indication, if we needed one, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most intractable problem in the global arena.
It is hoped that George Mitchell will, at some time in the future, relate the full measure of his frustrations in his two years on the job.
He is far too diplomatic a gentleman to say anything right now beyond repeating that he committed to a two-year time frame when he took the job. But from the fragments of off-the-record comments by those who have been involved in the peace process, Mitchell was a frustrated man indeed.
I found it difficult to understand why he would have taken on this problem in the first place. He had to know that the chances of success were slim and that the process was likely to be extremely unpleasant. Sen. Mitchell is also no longer a young man, and this was always going to be a grinding task.
Not that the senator is a man to be intimidated by seemingly intractable situations.
In Northern Ireland, he was able to broker a peace deal in a situation which had gone on much longer and was seemingly as difficult as the Arab- Israeli conflict.
Moreover, Sen. Mitchell is a man who has a sense of duty that is deeply felt. He would not be one to turn away from an impossible situation when asked by the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a longtime friend.
I have long wondered why this conflict has to be so tough. It is another of those situations where all the principals know the answer, but no one has the courage to step up to it.
The solution is the one nearly brokered by President Bill Clinton just before he left office in 2000: Israel would withdraw from the occupied territories, including the West Bank, except for select areas of major settlements. Jerusalem would be split with a third-party security force to protect the demarcation. Despite intense pressure, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader at the time, could not bring himself to accept the deal.
In the time since then, Israeli leadership has moved further to the right, and public opinion has become more fragmented. Palestinian politics has not been able to develop a leader of stature to replace Arafat, and the Gaza Strip is now under the control of Hamas, which Israel and the United States view as a terrorist organization.
We are now in a situation where the Israelis seem to have little incentive to make any serious concessions.
They have aggressively settled the West Bank and built their own “Berlin Wall” to ensure their security. The two major Palestinian factions have formed an alliance of sorts and seem to believe their best hope is to get the United Nations to declare an independent Palestinian state.
Most of the world sides with the Palestinians. The United States is the only nation now aligned with Israel. All of this is unlikely to change.
Despite President Obama’s carefully crafted speech on the Middle East in which he, for the first time, uttered the wholly reasonable words that any solution must involve a return to the “pre-1967 boundaries with mutually-agreed adjustments,” the United States is unlikely to put any real pressure on Israel — not with Obama facing re-election in 2012 and depending on the Jewish vote.
Our president has shown no more taste for standing up to the Israelis than any of his recent predecessors.
Obama tried putting pressure on Israel early in his presidency, experienced the ire of AIPAC, the powerful Israeli lobby, and has essentially been backtracking (cleverly but clearly) ever since.
I suspect this backtracking is at the heart of Sen. Mitchell’s decision to call it a day. It is impossible to bring the two parties together if the United States is unwilling to put pressure on the Israelis.
However, I hope we will hear all this and more from Mitchell himself.
He could do a significant service to the country at this twilight stage of his career by writing his own account of his two years as Middle East envoy.
Often we learn more from our failures than from our successes. The senator is a thoughtful and wise observer, and he is a man who understands negotiation as well as anyone alive on the world scene.
Perhaps we will see, after the upcoming presidential election, a Mitchell memoir. It will make fascinating reading.
Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant located in Portland. He can be contacted at: