George Mitchell's Pointless Trip

America’s new envoy to the Middle East just returned from his first listening tour, where he undeniably got an earful. But the next big step in American leadership will have to be much more than just parading Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.

America’s new envoy to the Middle East just returned from his first listening tour, where he undeniably got an earful. But the next big step in U.S. leadership will have to be much more than just parading Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.

The estimable George Mitchell, America’s new envoy to the Middle East, went out to the region for a week to listen—and without doubt, learned nothing that he and most American policymakers haven’t known for decades.

And while some of his Arab hosts may have appreciated Mitchell’s genuine disposition to hear them out, they weren’t looking for the Obama administration to listen to them, but to lead. And they’re asking for precisely the kind of American leadership they have been calling for over half a century—to lean on Israel, to twist the arms of Israeli leaders, to compel Israel to give back the West Bank to the Palestinians and make a part of East Jerusalem its capital, and other sundries.

The Mitchell trip did not deal even in a deflected manner with these hard, underlying realities.

What Arab leaders want now and what they’ve always wanted is for the U.S. to compel Israel to make the most far-reaching political and security concessions and to trust that Arabs and Palestinians will, in turn, keep some kind of peace. None of this is to suggest that Israel should not be prepared to make far-reaching concessions. Israel should, and I believe will, be prepared to accept a two-state solution, one Palestinian state on the West Bank in Gaza with a capital in East Jerusalem, and the Jewish state of Israel. And Israel can and will be prepared to make additional concessions.

But let’s stop kidding ourselves: No sane leaders anywhere in the world would trust their security to the word of people who are publicly committed to their destruction and who have actually been trying to destroy them for half a century. Palestinians and Arabs will have to understand that they must make some serious concessions on security matters and on verification in order to give Israelis the necessary confidence to establish the two-state solution they desire.

But back to the Mitchell trip, which surely did not deal even in a deflected manner with these hard, underlying realities. What Mitchell heard was the usual litany of Arab complaints about Israel’s inhumanity to the Palestinians. What he heard was laments about the heedless and needless killing of civilians during the recent Gaza operation and how difficult Israel had been making life for Gazans through their strict control of the Gazan border (to prevent arms shipments) even before the Israeli incursion into Gaza last month.

I must tell you that I was not a particular fan of this Israeli military action because I could never figure out how it might succeed. And it did not succeed. Gazan rockets are once again falling on Israel. But if Arabs and Europeans and United Nations officials are sincerely upset about Israel choking off supplies to Gazans, let them get serious about patrolling the tunnels through which Hamas has been moving the neverending supply of rockets and other arms. And let them check the Egyptian-Gazan border as well. Serious inspections and action to stop illegal shipment of arms is the way for the tearful to prove that they really do want to help the Gazans with food and medicine. These same humanitarians might also call the attention of Hamas to the consequences for the Gazan people of the continued Hamas firing of rockets into Israel.

And those who profess this higher humanitarianism might also remember what they said—and what they did not say—when Arab leaders committed far greater atrocities on Arab people than the Israelis ever committed upon the Palestinians. Who among them condemned Saddam Hussein’s atrocities over the years? Which of their leaders has raised the alarms about the most serious human-rights violations in Iran? And who among these Arab humanitarians have condemned the horrible treatment of women in so many Muslim societies? The daily treatment of women throughout a good deal of the Arab world is far worse than the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The Israelis are no angels in how they treat the Palestinians, but their record is far, far better than how most Arab leaders treat their own people. So, even if George Mitchell listened in his most careful way, he heard nothing about these Arab inhumanities from the Arabs.

Yes, Arab leaders want American leadership essentially to correct what they regard as Israeli sins, but they haven’t begun to understand that no American president ever would or should do as Arab leaders wish. Past American presidents have leaned on Israelis as well as Arabs to make concessions, and I’m sure the Obama administration will do the same. But what the Arabs and Palestinians will have to understand is that they will have to give some important things as well as receive some important things.

What everybody is going to have to understand in the immediate future is that American leadership can’t simply or mainly be about twisting Israeli and Palestinian arms. Those arms are not twistable in the current circumstances. Too many bad things have happened on all sides to allow for the necessary political compromises.

It is an iron law of international negotiations that one should not expect at the negotiating table what cannot be supported in the larger political arena. Negotiators can make compromises only when they are politically possible and politically supportable. And needed compromises are more difficult to come by today than they have been for many years. The political strength of those who favor compromise has been severely weakened on both sides, and the political fortunes of those who want to just dig in their heels have greatly increased.

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Thus, the next big step in American leadership is not once again to parade Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table where they can only fail in the foreseeable future, but to work with both sides to build from scratch the political power of those who would fight for peace and make compromises possible at the negotiating table.

In other words, America’s main diplomatic track must be to do in the Holy Land what the British and the Americans did in Northern Ireland—to strengthen the hand of peace groups such as women’s groups and businesses. These are the actors who eventually put pressure upon Irish and Protestant leaders to make settlements in Northern Ireland and to reassure those leaders that they could make such concessions and survive politically. This is the groundbreaking task that lies ahead for George Mitchell (who negotiated and understands the lessons of Northern Ireland), the Obama administration, and the U.S. if they are to lead both Palestinian and Israeli parties to their promised lands.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of the forthcoming HarperCollins book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.