This week, George Mitchell was back in the Middle East, preparing for a round of indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians. But until now, few outside the region have taken notice of his mission. Even fewer expect it to produce real progress toward peace.
America’s Special Envoy for Middle East is all dressed up with nowhere to go, a player in a drama for which no script has yet been written. He commands no coercive authority and carries neither carrots nor sticks in his diplomatic pouch.
Mitchell's mission has manifestly failed. No progress has been made toward resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict since Obama took office.
Yet, Mitchell has traveled to the region at least ten times since his appointment in January last year, shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah with a small entourage of State Department officials. During these trips, Mitchell stays under the radar and rarely talks to the press. Instead, on a typical trip, Mitchell sees Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, as well as the Israeli Leader of the Opposition, Tzipi Livni, and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
These trips revolve around the same handful of people and places, and although everyone realizes that Mitchell has no way of making anyone do anything, they continue to meet with him in a Groundhog Day of diplomacy.
Asked about the effectiveness of the meetings, a State Department official said the meetings were “productive” and quoted Mitchell himself: “There were seven hundred days of failure in Northern Ireland and one day of success.”
Still, it is a curiously impotent role for a figure of such distinction. When President Obama appointed Mitchell “special envoy” fifteen months ago, some hoped he would emerge as the new Middle East sheriff, an enforcer who would crack his whip and finally bring unruly Arabs and Israelis to heel.
Things haven't worked out that way. Mitchell's mission has manifestly failed. No progress has been made toward resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict since Obama took office. And some argue that peace has actually become more remote.
It's not Mitchell’s fault, though.
• Reza Aslan: Obama’s Pathetic Mideast PolicyOverwhelmed by other concerns, Obama has not made the Israel-Palestine conflict a top priority, and until he does, Mitchell's mission has no chance of success. There can be no breakthrough without some dramatic step—the kind of conceptual leap that only a President can decide to take.
Obama may be laying the groundwork for just such a leap. At a recent news conference, he asserted that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict was “a vital national security interest of the United States.” Several of his aides are urging him to take America's Mideast policy in a sharply new direction. Respected foreign policy “wise men” including several former national security advisors are pushing from the outside.
The problem is that neither side is able to make the compromises that peace requires. It has become almost impossible to imagine them making peace unless they are forced—unless their leaders can say, “I hate doing this, but it's being jammed down our throats and we have no choice.”
As the Israel-Palestine conflict drags on, it blocks the resolution of urgent crises and intensifies looming threats to the West. That presents the United States with a profound choice. Should it ignore this growing peril, or take some decisive new step to try to resolve the conflict, even against the will of the combatants?
This debate is unfolding in Washington now. It takes place in a murky environment, because no one is in clear charge of US policy toward the Middle East. Mitchell might have been a candidate, but his job is mainly about selling. Until his boss gives him something substantial to sell, he will make no progress with Israelis or Palestinians.
Nor is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making policy; she finds herself in the odd position of being a global superstar without much real power at home. General James Jones, the national security advisor, is among those pressing for a dramatic step, but he does not control the policy process. If there is a grand decision to be made, only the President can make it.
An explosion of outraged protest would certainly greet any decision by the US to try to impose peace. The logistical challenges posed by such an effort would be nearly as daunting as the political ones. Many around the world, however, would cheer.
They would do so because they recognize two evident truths. First, resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict has become truly urgent for the entire world. Second, the parties themselves cannot—and will not—resolve it. Mitchell was not exaggerating when he called this “as intractable problem as you get.”
Fluffy clouds regularly float over the Middle East, with names like Camp David, Road Map, Oslo Process, and Wye River Memorandum. They pass pleasantly but have little effect on the daily lives of Israelis or Palestinians. In this conflict, negotiation has become the enemy of peace.
No one doubts Mitchell’s diligence. He has returned time and again to the region, seeking small areas of agreement on which to build, as he did during his long and ultimately successful negotiations with warring factions in Northern Ireland. American diplomats have been doing this in the Middle East for nearly half a century. And Mitchell himself is among the first to admit that prospects are more than daunting. “We know that there has been much skepticism and many difficulties, and there will be many difficulties to come,” he said recently, on a trip to the region.
During most of the cold war, the US shaped its Middle East policy according to the perceived interests of two close partners, Israel and Saudi Arabia. This arrangement may have served American needs during an earlier era. But the strategic environment has changed radically, and American policy remains frozen in time.
Obama may at some point decide to roll the Middle East dice. He could even try something as audacious as marshaling a global coalition to impose peace on Israel and the Palestinians. If he does, Mitchell will suddenly become very busy. Until then, the “special envoy” can only wait and hope—or, if he concludes that nothing is going to change, quit.
Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent. His next book, Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future, will be published in June.