After months of dramatic change in the Arab world, culminating in the triumphal takedown of Osama bin Laden, the resignation on Friday of President Obama’s once-high-profile Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, was a reminder that at least one thing hasn’t changed a bit. There is no present prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
And that announcement in turn could cast a pall over many of the positive developments occurring in the Arab countries, where protesters are seeking to oust long-entrenched dictators, and rejuvenate extreme Islamist groups.
Mitchell, the 77-year-old former U.S. senator from Maine who was one of Obama’s first appointees as president, is resigning a week after the Fatah faction behind the Palestinian Authority signed a reconciliation pact with Hamas, the virulently anti-Israel Islamist group that runs the West Bank. Hamas leaders have continued to take the line that while they could accept a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, they would still never recognize Israel. If they ever did so, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar told the Palestinian news agency Ma'an on Wednesday, it would "preclude the right of the next generations to liberate the lands."
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Such an uncompromising stance effectively renders impossible any U.S. effort at restarting peace negotiations. The talks had already been frozen in a standoff between the PA and Israelis over settlements. U.S. and Israeli officials have consistently said that preconditions for talks include recognition of Israel and a renunciation of violence.
The resignation highlighted a grim trend: Both the Israelis and Palestinians have been acting more and more unilaterally in recent months. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sought the deal with Hamas and is pushing for a U.N. General Assembly vote this fall recognizing a Palestinian state; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to build West Bank settlements in defiance of Washington’s wishes, has installed a missile-defense system to protect Israel against Hamas rockets, and visits Washington next week to make his case that any inclusion of Hamas in the Palestinian government renders statehood impossible.
The president said in a statement, "Secretary Clinton has asked the Deputy Middle East Envoy, David Hale to serve as the Acting Envoy and I have every confidence in David’s ability to continue to make progress in this important effort."
Mitichell had been so low-profile recently that Washington observers didn’t expect much to change right away. “Mitchell has not been particularly active in the last six months, so it’s hard to say that this means a falloff in any activity,” says Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.
Clawson said there was a negative “symbolism” to having no U.S. peace envoy, but on the other hand, he said, “Who wants a job as a symbol?” Dennis Ross, the former Mideast negotiator who is deputy national-security adviser, will continue to play an interlocutor role in the interim.
Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a former Mideast negotiator, said that the news only confirms that the peace process is “nonexistent” and underlines the dashed hopes of the Obama administration at a moment of relative triumph. “In appointing the most high-profile, talented negotiator since [Secretary of State] Jim Baker, this president came out louder, harder, and faster than any of his predecessors. But they [the administration] allowed their rhetoric, commitments, and intentions to get way out ahead of reality.” Mitchell, who achieved renown for ending the Northern Ireland conflict in the '90s, probably “came to the conclusion that there was a certain amount of fiction involved in continuing to play this role.”
The danger now, Miller and others say, is that Obama will try to make too much of the positive developments in the Arab world in a big speech planned for next week, without recognizing that serious setbacks have occurred, not just in the Palestinian territories but in Syria and Bahrain, where protesters have been beaten back, and even in Egypt.
The president is expected to say that with the death of bin Laden and the ouster of autocrats like former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, it is time for a new beginning in the region. But George Mitchell’s departure appears to mark more of an ending, at least for now.
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