May 15, 2011

Bill Nemitz: From the president's desk: A nation owes the man from Maine

Back in early 2009, when a newly elected President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked him to take on the mammoth task of forging a peace agreement in the Middle East, George Mitchell hesitated.

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George Mitchell

2010 file photo/The Portland Press Herald

Barack Obama, George Mitchell
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President Obama looks on as George Mitchell speaks at the State Department in 2009.

2009 file photo/The Associated Press

"I said, 'I want to consult with some friends,'" said Mitchell, the former U.S. senator from Maine whose resume reads like a still-evolving history book. "And the first six people I called told me not to do it."


"So I stopped calling," Mitchell said with a chuckle. Instead, he followed his own instincts and signed on for what he knew would be the most difficult job of his life.

A job, alas, that wasn't supposed to end like this.

Back in those heady days of a new Obama administration, many around the world hoped out loud that the diplomatic miracle Mitchell achieved in Northern Ireland -- a 1998 peace agreement between Catholics and Protestants that holds to this day -- would be replicated with an end to decades of hostility between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet there Mitchell sat in the Oval Office on Friday, making good on a private letter he sent to the president five weeks ago: The two-year hitch Mitchell promised as special envoy to the Middle East is up and, disappointed as he may be at what remains a stalemate in the world's most volatile hot spot, it's time to move on.

"If a person could have succeeded through sheer will and hard work, George would have done it," Obama told me in a telephone interview shortly after the two met. "I'm extremely grateful for his service. His country owes him a high debt."

That we do.

Some in Washington say Mitchell, 77, never got a real chance to maximize his widely respected skills as a global mediator.

They say the White House's micromanaging of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deprived Mitchell of the maneuvering room he needed to achieve the mutual trust and extract the elusive concessions -- curtailment of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, an end to rocket attacks and other violence by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups -- upon which any lasting peace must hinge.

Others point to the still-unfolding revolutions throughout the Arab world, along with this month's freshly minted alliance between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, as proof that Obama's overall strategy for the Middle East is at best unfocused and at worst nonexistent.

But Mitchell, ever the statesman, had only praise for the president in a 30-minute telephone interview Friday afternoon from his soon-to-be-vacated Washington office.

"I like and admire and respect the president and I told him I appreciated the opportunity to again serve our country," he said. "And I meant it sincerely."

Mitchell also had a few words of advice for whomever picks up where he's leaving off.

"You've got to have a lot of patience, a willingness to travel extensively, to endure a lot of arguing and hostility back and forth and not get unduly upset by it," he said. "And obviously some knowledge and experience in the area."

To be sure, Mitchell said, recent popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Libya and elsewhere have left the Israelis and Palestinians unwilling to even talk about resuming talks until both sides can better discern where the political currents are headed.

"You cannot, and should not, view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in isolation from the rest of the Middle East," he said. "The instability that's occurring in the region now has a direct and profound effect upon the parties and vice versa. There's a synergy both ways."

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