Poor George Mitchell. There he is, running around the Middle East - now haggling with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, then with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; now with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, then with Jordanian King Abdullah II.
And in the meantime, his emissaries are talking with officials in Bahrain, Morocco, Qatar, Oman and, yes, even with Saudi Arabia.
The indefatigable 76-year-old former US Senator is trying to put together a package - yes, a package - that would make everyone happy enough to agree to sit down and talk. He needs a settlement freeze from Israel, security action from the Palestinians, and gestures from the Arab world.
It's important to stress the package aspect here, because - despite how things may be portrayed in the media - it is not only about settlements. Notwithstanding what they may say on CNN, it is not Netanyahu's intransigence that is holding up a meeting between the prime minister, Abbas and US President Barack Obama. Netanyahu has said he will declare a settlement construction moratorium if the Arabs ante up some substantial normalization gestures, but so far the gestures haven't been pouring in.
True, Netanyahu has not acceded to Obama's original demand for a total settlement freeze, but neither has Saudi Arabia heeded the president's call to help pull the stalled peace process out of the mud. Mitchell wants a settlement moratorium, but he also wants to see steps from the PA and the Arab world.
And then along comes South African Judge Richard Goldstone and his UN Human Rights Council-commissioned report and throws a tremendous wrench into the already difficult works.
If Mitchell thought it was rough getting the Arab world to make normalization gestures before Goldstone issued his report alleging Israeli war crimes in Gaza, then one can only imagine how difficult it will be now.
Imagine you're an Arab leader - say, even, the Saudi King - and normalization gestures toward Israel are anathema to you in the best of circumstances. Now, after the report damning Israel, a report that talks of the possibility of sending Israel to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, a report widely covered in the Arab media, are you going to be more giving or less giving? How is the emir of Qatar going to explain to his people the timing of declaring he will open up an economic interest section now in Tel Aviv?
But forget the rest of the Arab world. Imagine you're Abbas, and have climbed up a tall tree saying you will not talk with the Israelis until there is a complete and absolute settlement freeze. Now, after a report accusing Israel of possible crimes against humanity for the way it waged a war against brother Palestinians in Gaza, are you now going to climb down that tree, face massive internal criticism and begin talks with the Israelis? Probably not.
So if the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world were not exactly chomping at the bit to do their part to get the negotiations under way before Goldstone, now they will be even more reluctant.
Indeed, why should they rush? Who knows exactly how this will play itself out, what international pressure and censure will be brought to bear on Jerusalem. Israel all of a sudden finds itself squirming, very much on the defensive. Why relieve its discomfort by announcing negotiations?
And it is not only the Arabs who will be influenced by the report. As Netanyahu made clear in his television interviews Thursday night, the report does not exactly give Israel confidence that if it withdraws from further territory, the world will recognize its right to self defense.
As Netanyahu pointed out, when Israel withdrew from Gaza to the last Jew, there were those both here and abroad who said that if one missile fell on Israel, the country would have all the legitimacy in the world to take military action to defend its citizens. But as Goldstone made painfully clear, that hasn't exactly turned out to be the case - something that will undoubtedly give the country's leaders pause before making further concessions.
Mitchell's job, as everyone realized from the outset, would be an extremely difficult one. Goldstone just made it even more so.
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