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May 14, 2011

Mitchell bows out as Mideast envoy

The highly respected Maine leader, businessman and diplomat says the effect of regional turmoil on the peace process factored into his decision.

By Bill Nemitz

and Jonathan Riskind
Washington Bureau Chief

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.

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Mideast envoy George Mitchell, right, talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit during a visit in 2009.

The Associated Press

Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, George Mitchell
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"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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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George Mitchell meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Abbas headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2009 shortly after Mitchell was named Mideast envoy. He was seeking to prop up a Gaza cease-fire and restart broader peace talks.

2009 AP file


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