US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell expressed support for Egyptian efforts to forge a Palestinian national unity government, indicating that America could take a new tack on Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, during a conference call Thursday with Jewish leaders.
In sharp contrast to the Bush administration, which opposed a Palestinian national unity government, Mitchell said that should Egypt bring the sides together it would be "a step forward," and that until now divisions among the Palestinians have been a major obstacle to bringing peace to the region, according to representatives of Jewish organizations who participated in the call. The 45-minute call was on the record but not open to the media.
Mitchell said that Hamas would still need to adhere to the Quartet's demands that it halt violence, recognize Israel and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements in such a government, and assessed that the chances of Hamas doing that weren't good. But the fact that the US would support a Palestinian structure aimed at incorporating and potentially co-opting Hamas - rather than working to exclude it - suggest the contours of a fresh approach by the Obama administration.
The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for clarification on its policy on a Palestinian unity government Thursday or confirmation of Mitchell's comments.
Mitchell did not take a position on the notion of an Israeli national unity government during the call, saying that decisions about the coalition make-up were ones to be made by Israelis alone, participants said.
He did, however, appear to take a position differing from that of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader likely to head Israel's next government, when he maintained that economic progress for the Palestinians had to be accompanied by political progress.
Where Netanyahu - who was not mentioned even implicitly in Mitchell's comments, according to those on the call - has focused on the importance of improving the socio-economic condition of Palestinians while prospects for peace appear dim, Mitchell said those improvements must be part of comprehensive peace efforts. He said both economic development and political progress were necessary and should be concurrent rather than sequential.
He compared the situation to that of a builder who might be starting with the foundation but still needed a master plan to create a house.
Despite the Israeli coalition wrangling which has yet to be resolved, Mitchell said he would still be departing for the region as planned this weekend, his second trip since he was appointed in the first week of US President Barack Obama's term. His first trip was a "listening" tour to hear from the different parties in the conflict, and he said that positions on all the issues were still being reviewed, including that toward settlements.
He said that he would not "pre-judge" the settlement issue, surprising some listeners who had expected he would offer starker criticism, particularly since he co-authored a report in 2001 highly critical of settlement construction.
He did note, however, that settlements were one of many important issues - though not the only issue - and that it was one mentioned in every conversation he held with Arab representatives.
Though some of the call participants from left-leaning organizations seemed dismayed that Mitchell did not take a more aggressive line on settlements, others were reassured that he didn't feel beholden to his earlier report.
The call featured a variety of organizations, including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the United Jewish Communities and American Jewish Committee, with about half the questions asked by progressive organizations, including Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and the New Israel Fund, that have not always been included in previous administrations' outreach.
"It's a breath of fresh air to have a briefing with a broad spectrum of pro-Israel organizations that is on the record," said Ori Nir, spokesman for the dovish Americans for Peace Now.
At the same time, Nathan Diament of the more hawkish Orthodox Union, said he appreciated that Mitchell acknowledged "he had to operate in the current reality" and was in the process of listening to different points of view before setting out policy prescriptions.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, noted that Mitchell was well versed in the politics of each organization but didn't try to conceal differences with them.
"He was always diplomatic, but if he disagreed or thought that a perspective was not where the administration is going, he was willing to say so," he said.
Forman praised Mitchell for also stressing the importance of preserving Israeli's qualitative military edge and the US's strong commitment to Israel's overall security - even as he maintained that that commitment was in no way incompatible with a two-state solution.
Mitchell told the callers that he re-read his report while returning from his last trip to Israel and had been struck by how much had changed in the region since then. As an example, he cited Iran, which wasn't included at all in the 2001 study but now was in the first sentence he heard from all of the players.
He also warned against relying too much on history and historical comparisons, noting that his work brokering peace in Northern Ireland did not provide the best blueprint for resolving the Middle East conflict since the latter was not only different but tougher to solve.
At the same time, he noted that his earlier success made him believe peace in the Middle East was possible.
And he said that he had learned one lesson from his experience in Ireland that he believed was applicable now: the importance of having representation from all the different factions in the conflict. His remarks about the positive impact Egypt's efforts at bringing Palestinians together were made in this context.
It is a comparison that others have made, and seen as a sign that this US administration might be more willing to talk to Hamas than the previous one.
Mitchell, however, did not suggest that that was in the cards, and reiterated that the Quartet's demands remain in place. However, a willingness to work with a unity government, as opposed to a policy of isolating Hamas in hopes that that would diminish its power and popularity, would still represent a dramatic change in America's approach.
Martin Indyk, who was speaking at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, which he directs, before Mitchell's conference call, suggested that the Obama administration would try to use the Palestinian national unity consultations to change the dynamic there.
Unlike the Bush administration, he said, he expected the US would "not stand in the way" of a national unity government, but that the US would want to ensure that the government that results is "one that can make negotiations possible."
Therefore, he said that while the Arab countries, such as Egypt, will lead the process, America needs "to have a kind of invisible hand" to achieve an outcome where Hamas can work with Fatah so that international demands can be met and the process can move forward.
At this point, there's been no indication that the Obama administration intends to drop the Quartet demands or have direct contacts with Hamas. An Israeli diplomatic official said that "there's no sign, not even a hint of change" on that policy. "I think we see eye to eye fully on that."
And Chairman of the US Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations John Kerry, on Thursday making the first visit to the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control in 2007, also insisted that US policy towards the Islamic organization it labels a terror group wouldn't change.
But that doesn't mean that other states and actors in the international community couldn't act as intermediaries, as Egypt has done in helping to negotiate a truce between Israel and Hamas.
The support that Mitchell expressed on the call for a national unity government was a starting point welcomed by Henry Siegman, director of the New York-based US Middle East Project, who supports including Hamas in Middle East talks.
The project's senior advisers and board members, who include former US national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, represent a bi-partisan group of former high-ranking US foreign policy officials primarily from the "realist" school of thought.
They recently sent a letter to the Obama administration urging a change in policy which would include outreach to Hamas.
Siegman argued that negotiations aimed at moderating Hamas would be most effective if the Americans were directly involved, but said European and other international intermediaries could also work. "The important thing is that such initiatives would have to be supported by the administration," he said.
He added that the administration had indicated it would like to meet with the authors of the letter, which has not been made public, but no date has yet been set.