George Mitchell: Obama’s Last Hope in the Middle East

The Obama envoy who took on professional baseball, the IRA, and Protestant leaders may have finally met his match in the Middle East.

George Mitchell. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

On a day in early 1998, in a room full of Northern Ireland’s most determined enemies—and most intransigent egos—former Senator George Mitchell finally lost his legendary patience.

“It was noticeable because it was only a small change in his voice level,” says Lord David Trimble, the former Unionist leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in making peace in Northern Ireland. “It only happened once and only just a little bit.”

Given the current state of Middle East peace talks, Mitchell, now the U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, may have to raise his voice a little bit louder.

Trimble, who happens to sit on an Israeli commission investigating the military raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in May, told The Daily Beast that peace negotiations in Northern Ireland were nowhere near as complex or difficult as the talks in the Middle East. And should the process fail, “it won’t be his fault,” says Trimble.

Mitchell himself has said his experience in Northern Ireland inspires him to believe that even the Israelis and the Palestinians can reach a final peace agreement.

Belfast, however, is not Jerusalem. And Mitchell faces a formidable task.

The Northern Ireland conflict, at its most basic level, was a dispute between two white, Christian, English-speaking, predominantly working-class communities. The Israelis and Palestinians look different, speak different languages and do not share religious creed.

However, those who have seen Mitchell in action say that if anyone can bring the parties together it is him—especially because, in negotiations, Mitchell’s toughness comes in the form of listening—and in finding common ground where there seems to be little.

New York Congressman Peter King, a Republican from Long Island, and once the IRA’s strongest ally in Congress, observed Mitchell’s technique as he moved between separate meetings with the opposing parties over several months.

“He once showed me his yellow legal pad—he was writing down everything important [the parties] would say and try to find some commonality between the points.” Mitchell then circled the points, and, using the diagram, tried to find common ground between the opposing parties.

As Trimble described Mitchell’s method: “It was a matter of grinding things down.”

Those who have seen Mitchell in action say that if anyone can bring the parties together it is him.

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Mitchell’s experience chairing the Northern Ireland talks also prepared him for another tough task— investigating doping allegations in the world of professional baseball. In a 2007 report, he named 89 major league players, who allegedly took performance-enhancing drugs. Two years later, President Obama appointed Mitchell as his Middle East envoy.

But whereas Mitchell could exercise that toughness in Northern Ireland in a room where all the parties were gathered, there are conspicuous absences around his negotiating table in the Middle East, among them Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria.

Mitchell can’t gently raise his voice to the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, because Meshal lives in Damascus and hasn’t been invited. Nor can Mitchell take notes on a yellow legal pad from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and see if Iran’s interests could somehow overlap with Israel’s. And without these parties present, Mitchell will be hard pressed to deliver the sort of comprehensive peace deal he helped craft in Belfast.

Like the Obama administration, Mitchell is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the Middle East. At the very least, he has to persuade Israel to agree to another 60-day halt on the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank because without the freeze, Abbas will likely abandon the negotiations.

And that’s just the first step. As Aaron David Miller, the State Department’s former No. 2 Middle East negotiator, who is now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says: “If Israel agrees to a two-month moratorium, the reality is the administration is forced to deliver an agreement in the next six to eight weeks—that is going to be extremely difficult to do.”

Mitchell may not get blamed if the negotiations fail. But he is the American government’s representative and, as such, “the person in the middle of the muddle [who] becomes the serious repository of the confidences, the trust, the formulations, the potential fixes, the off-the-record conversations,” Miller said.

Whether or not it’s his fault, ultimately, Mitchell is now about to find out if he’ll go down in history as just another failed Middle East peace negotiator or the second coming of himself—his Northern Ireland self.

Matt McAllester is a contributing editor at Details magazine. For 13 years, he reported for Newsday, spending much of that time as a foreign correspondent in places such as Kosovo, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Nigeria, and Lebanon.