US Mideast Envoy George Mitchell 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
WASHINGTON – The White House announced Friday that US Middle East envoy George Mitchell was resigning after two years of fruitless efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to a peace deal.
In accepting Mitchell’s resignation, US President Barack Obama didn’t name a new envoy but said that Mitchell deputy David Hale would serve as the acting envoy in the meantime.
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The announcement comes days before Obama is expected to give a major address on the Middle East during a week which will also include a visit from Jordan’s King Abdullah on Tuesday and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Friday.
Those visits come on the backdrop of stalled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, despite Obama’s early emphasis on a peace deal, including the appointment of Mitchell just two days after assuming the presidency. There were expectations that the coming week of diplomatic activity would consist of an effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian engagement, but the recently announced national unity deal between the Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas have dampened those efforts.
“As a nation, we remain committed to peace in the Middle East and to building on George’s hard work and progress toward achieving this goal,” Obama said in a statement put out Friday afternoon. “I have every confidence in David’s ability to continue to make progress in this important effort.”
Both Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her own statement praised Mitchell for his legacy of public service. Obama noted that Mitchell had originally agreed only to serve as envoy for two years, something Mitchell himself pointed to in his letter of resignation.
“I strongly support your vision of comprehensive peace in the Middle East and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your administration,” Mitchell wrote in a letter dated April 6, giving his final day on the job as May 20.
Despite the multiple references to the two-year commitment, which expired in January, observers saw in the timing of Mitchell’s resignation indications that the envoy had failed in his task to bring the two sides closer together and perhaps that the Obama administration was seeking to downgrade the primacy it places on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Senator George Mitchell's resignation as the Obama administration's Middle East envoy makes formal what was clear for some time--the president's goal of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by September is unattainable and negotiations are not about to resume any time soon,” former State Department official Rob Danin, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote after Friday’s announcement.
White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted, however, that the US remained focused on seeking a deal.
“This president’s commitment remains as firm as it was when he took office,” Carney said when asked about Mitchell’s resignation during Friday’s press briefing. “The fact that this is a hard issue, an extraordinarily hard issue, is not news to anyone in this room or anyone who’s ever attempted to work on it over these many years.”
He added, “The president is committed to continue working on it, and the fact that he’s having these meetings next week proves that.”
Israeli officials and pro-Israel groups expressed their appreciation for Mitchell’s efforts Friday even if they were ultimately unsuccessful.
“Israel remains committed to the vision so tirelessly pursued by Senator Mitchell of direct negotiations leading to two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security,” said Israel’s ambassador to the US Michael Oren in a statement, in which he blamed the Palestinians for blocking progress.
“Unfortunately, the Palestinians rejected his repeated invitations to resume direct negotiations and instead decided to achieve statehood unilaterally, without direct talks and without peace,” Oren charged.
Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni also praised Mitchell, saying that "even if the task was not completed, Mitchell... in his deep obligation to peace, filled an important role in promoting Israel and the region.”
She added, "A peace agreement is a national Israeli interest and we must hope that neither side gives up fulfilling this interest and merely contents themselves with mutual blame that leads nowhere.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee also blamed the Palestinians for stymieing Mitchell’s overtures.
“We appreciate his efforts to set up negotiations and deeply regret Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s continued unwillingness to negotiate directly with his Israeli counterpart without preconditions,” the group said in statement.
Americans for Peace Now, however, urged Obama to continue efforts to forge peace even with Mitchell no longer involved.
“With peace efforts stalled, the entire world is wondering if Senator Mitchell's departure discloses a decision by the Obama administration to back off further from peace efforts,” said APN President Debra DeLee in a statement Friday. “It is vital that President Obama demonstrate - through his actions and words - that this is not the case. Now is the time for President Obama to take charge personally of his Israeli-Palestinian policy. Envoys and shuttle diplomacy have had their day; what is needed now is resolute personal engagement and dramatic action from the President himself.”