Can George Mitchell Fix the Middle East?

A decade ago, George Mitchell helped Bill Clinton broker peace in Northern Ireland. Can he do the same for Obama in the Middle East?

Obama's decision to tap former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to be special envoy to the Middle East is being touted by some as a bold choice that signals his willingness to play a direct role in bringing an end to the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

But others see the appointment to what must be the least-envied job in Washington as mere window dressing.

“It’s a way of making it appear that Obama is dealing with the Middle East,” said a source close to the decision who wished to remain anonymous, “when in fact his focus will be almost completely on the economy.”

Mitchell's 2001 report on the conflict remains to this day the most comprehensive outline for getting to a two-state solution.

Mitchell's appointment will be announced as soon as the Senate confirms Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, according to people familiar with the matter.

There is no question that Mitchell, a 75-year-old Arab-American who retired from the Senate in 1994, is well-versed in the decades-old conflict. In 2000, President Bill Clinton asked Mitchell to compile a report on what would come to be known as the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada. The event was sparked by the visit of Ariel Sharon, at the time locked in a bruising contest with Benjamin Netanyahu for control of the Likud party, to the Temple Mount (the site of the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest shrines) accompanied by 1,000 heavily armed Israeli soldiers dressed in riot gear. It was a deliberately provocative and baldly political gesture. It helped Sharon defeat Netanyahu and become prime minister, but it also launched a wave of violence across the country and put an end (once again) to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Mitchell Report pinned much of the blame for the outbreak of violence on Ariel Sharon, calling his visit to the Temple Mount a “poorly timed” and “provocative” action whose effects “should have been foreseen; indeed it was foreseen by those who urged that the visit be prohibited.” But the report did not stop there. In a surprisingly frank and even-handed report that drew praise from all sides in the conflict, Mitchell outlined a comprehensive plan for an end to hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians. He demanded an immediate freezing of all Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Territories, a lifting of all restrictions on the movement of people and goods in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the transfer by Israel of all tax revenue owed to the Palestinians. At the same time, the report called for the Palestinian Authority to take greater responsibility in preventing terrorist actions by militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and it specifically demanded an end to the firing of rockets into Israel.

The report concluded somewhat presciently that while “both sides have made clear a profound disillusionment with the behavior of the other,” unless both the Israelis and Palestinians were willing to return to the negotiating table, they faced “the prospect of fighting it out for years on end, with many of their citizens leaving for distant shores to live their lives and raise their children.”

Although the Mitchell Report was not completed until after George W. Bush took office (when it must have gotten lost in a drawer somewhere), its conclusions ultimately formed the framework for the now-abandoned “Roadmap to Peace,” drawn up by the so-called Quartet of nations, the US, UN, EU, and Russia. Indeed, the report remains to this day the most-comprehensive outline for getting to a two-state solution. And, ironically, therein lies the source of the doubts being raised by some in Washington over Mitchell’s appointment. “The peace process is over,” the source told me. “Everybody knows this. Nothing dramatic is going to happen. So what’s the purpose of sending Mitchell to Jerusalem? Why the hell would he want the job anyway?”

Still, assuming that the appointment of Mitchell is more than mere window dressing, what can we expect from him? What insights will he bring to the position of special envoy to the Middle East? Perhaps his previous foray into peace making offers a clue.

As Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell played a pivotal role in brokering the Belfast Peace Agreement of 1998 (better known as the Good Friday Accords) between Catholics and Protestants. Struggling to bring an end to that particular cycle of violence between two ideologically opposed neighbors, Mitchell made a wise decision. He encouraged both sides to postpone dealing with the most contentious and intractable issue on the table—the disarming and decommissioning of the Irish Republican Army, Europe’s deadliest terrorist organization over the last century—and instead focused his efforts on establishing “confidence-building measures” between the two sides. Recognizing that the IRA was both a paramilitary and a political organization, through its political wing, Sinn Féin, Mitchell encouraged the group to focus on its political ambitions. In other words, rather than trying to forcefully strip the IRA of its weapons, the Good Friday Accords made those weapons gradually unnecessary. Seven years after the agreement was signed, the IRA voluntarily disarmed, promising to pursue its agenda solely through peaceful political means.

There may be a lesson here. For no matter how long the current cease-fire between Israel and Hamas lasts, when the dust settles and the Israeli army retreats, Hamas will still be standing in Gaza. It is permanently embedded into the very fabric of Palestinian society. Like the IRA, Hamas cannot be forcibly disarmed. However, again like the IRA, it can gradually become irrelevant, but only if its political aspirations are taken seriously.

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Whether Mitchell brings his experience in Northern Ireland to the Middle East remains to be seen. Yet there is no doubt that he understands what is at stake in his mission. As the Mitchell Report concluded, “Israelis and Palestinians have to live, work, and prosper together. History and geography have destined them to be neighbors. That cannot be changed. Only when their actions are guided by this awareness will they be able to develop the vision and reality of peace and shared prosperity.”

Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Best, is assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the international bestseller, No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and the forthcoming How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.