(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The peace agreements reached in Northern Ireland are proof that "there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended," George Mitchell, the man widely touted as US President Barack Obama's choice for new Middle East envoy, told The Jerusalem Post last month.
Mitchell, Washington's special envoy to the Northern Ireland peace negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement in 1998, spoke to the Post during a visit here last month to take part in a conference on US-Israeli relations at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
"I understand the people in the Middle East are discouraged," Mitchell said. "I understand your feelings. But from my experience in Northern Ireland, I share the feeling that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created by human beings, and can be ended by human beings. It may take a long time. But with committed, active and strong leadership, it can happen here in the Middle East."
While no formal announcement of Mitchell's appointment has yet been made, and apparently one will not be made until the Senate's confirmation of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, The Washington Post has reported that he has been tabbed for the position.
During his interview with The Jerusalem Post, Mitchell gave no indication at all that he was either interested in or being considered for the post of point man for the Obama administration in the Middle East. At the same time, he discounted speculation that the Israeli-Palestinian issue would be far down on Obama's list of priorities - following the US economic situation and the Iranian and Afghanistan wars - saying that it was not a problem for American presidents to "juggle" more than one issue at a time.
Mitchell, whose mother, Mary Saad, was a textile worker who immigrated from Lebanon at age 18, is well-acquainted with the Middle East and was the head of a committee established soon after the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, to determine the causes of the violence and ways to end it.
The conclusions of that Mitchell Report later formed the basis for the road map for Middle East peace, giving Israeli officials reason to believe Wednesday that Obama would not forge any brand new policy for regional diplomacy, but would fall back on existing paradigms.
In fact, it is precisely Mitchell's involvement in that report that has some Israeli officials concerned that Jerusalem will soon find itself at odds with the US once again over the settlement issue.
The Mitchell Report called for an immediate cessation of violence and a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian Authority security cooperation, and a series of "confidence-building measures" to follow the cease-fire. The two key measures were that the PA had to "make clear through concrete action to Palestinians and Israelis alike that terrorism is reprehensible and unacceptable and that the PA will make a 100-percent effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators"; and that Israel had to "freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements."
One government official said Mitchell's position on zero settlement construction, together with new National Security Adviser James Jones's previous articulation of frustration at Israel's inability to dismantle outposts, would likely put Israel and the new administration on a collision course.
The official said that while Mitchell had been considered "a friend of Israel" when he was Senate majority leader from 1989-1995, his tenure as head of the Mitchell Committee left some in Jerusalem with the feeling that he was trying to be "too balanced."
The official said the apparent selection of Mitchell as special envoy, over more high-profile Jewish Middle East experts surrounding Obama - such as Dennis Ross, Daniel Kurtzer, Martin Indyk and Richard Holbrooke - might indicate that for the sake of balance, Obama did not want a Jew in that position.
Asked by the Post whether there was anything he regretted about the report that bears his name, Mitchell said it was important to remember that there had been four other members on the committee, all of whom had brought their own perspectives.
The other members of the panel were former US senator Warren Rudman, former Turkish president Suleyman Demirel, former Norwegian foreign minister Thorbjorn Jagland and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
At his INSS lecture, Mitchell made clear what he thought was the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Israel has a state, but its people live in unbearable anxiety, so security for the people is an overriding objective. The Palestinians don't have a state and they want one, an independent, economically viable and geographically integral state; that is their overriding objective," he said.
"I believe that neither can attain its objective by denying to the other side its objectives. Israelis are not likely to have sustainable security if the Palestinians don't have a state, and Palestinians will never achieve a state until the people of Israel have some security."â€¢