Diplomacy: Meet our new peace processor

Barack Obama's pick for Mideast shuttle diplomat requires more than a bit of a reality check.

george mitchell 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
george mitchell 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A senior government official quipped this week that, regarding the Middle East, the difference between US President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, is that while the latter concluded that the best one could hope for now was an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the former actually believes he can forge peace. And to this end he has designated, at least according to media reports, former senator George Mitchell of Maine as his Middle East envoy. Despite months of speculation and jockeying, it's apparently Mitchell, and not Daniel Kurtzer; Mitchell, and not Dennis Ross; Mitchell, and not Martin Indyk - though that trio of old Oslo hands is still expected to play a role in Obama's Mideast policy. In selecting Mitchell, the new US president has chosen a man who believes that all troubles have solutions, that no problem is intractable. He has chosen a man who believes in conflict resolution, not merely conflict management, which - to a large degree - was the default setting of the Bush administration and the Sharon and Olmert governments. The failure of the Oslo process in the 1990s, and the violent eruption of the second intifada, prompted a switch both in Jerusalem and in Washington, from the belief that we were on the cusp of solving, for-once-and-for-all, the Arab-Israel conflict, to a belief that the best we can do now is manage the conflict until attitudes and patterns of behavior fundamentally change on the ground. Israel went from then-prime minister Ehud Barak's drive to forge an "end to the conflict" agreement with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000, to building the security fence and disengaging from Gaza - polices propelled largely by a belief that the conflict was unsolvable, and that the best way to manage it was to take unilateral steps that the government thought would best serve the country's interests. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's pre-Operation Cast Lead comments about withdrawing from the Golan Heights, parts of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank was a 2008 throwback to that "let's-solve-the-conflict" philosophy. But, if the Israeli polls are any indication, the country isn't interested. Not because it doesn't want peace, but because over the last nine years it has been mugged by the reality of drive-by shootings, suicide bombings, and unending Kassam rockets. Binyamin Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc are leading in all the polls, and they are leading not because they are promising sweeping peace in the Middle East. But don't tell Obama, or Mitchell. Obama, in his first phone call to regional leaders on Wednesday, said that the arms smuggling to Hamas had to stop, and also that he was committed to "active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term." And Mitchell? Mitchell believes in the power of diplomacy to untie even the tightest knot. He is a true believer that conflicts, all conflicts, can be solved. How does he know? Because he was the US envoy to Northern Ireland who helped forge the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that led to an end to Northern Ireland's "troubles." And does that experience color the way he looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? As Sarah Palin would say, "You betcha." "I UNDERSTAND the people in the Middle East are discouraged," Mitchell told The Jerusalem Post last month, after delivering a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "I understand your feelings." The soft-spoken, very personable Mitchell continued: "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." When the warring sides in Northern Ireland got together last year to adopt a power-sharing agreement, Mitchell said, it happened "some 800 years after Britain began its domination of Ireland; 86 years after the partition of Ireland; 38 years after the British Army formally began its most recent mission in Ireland; 11 years after the peace talks began; and nine years after the peace agreement was signed." He said that in the negotiations which led up to the agreement, "We had seven-hundred days of failure and one day of success." His message was clear, and this is also the message Obama has opted to send out by selecting Mitchell as his Mideast point man: If they can do it in Northern Ireland after 800 years, they can do it in the Middle East. But can they? With the appointment of Mitchell, many will now draw parallels between the two conflicts. It is, therefore, instructive also to look at the differences. THE FIRST important difference is that while the basic goal of the IRA was to bring about a united Ireland, it never posited as its aim the replacement of England with Ireland. It wanted to bring Ireland to Ulster, not bring Ireland to London. John Bew and Martyn Frampton, two Cambridge University fellows who, with Ingio Gurruchaga, authored a book to be published in March entitled: Talking to Terrorists: The Search for Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country, wrote in the summer that "the aims of the IRA posed no existential threat to the British. This is not the case where Israel and Hamas are concerned. "The objectives of Hamas require the destruction of the state of Israel. Moreover, whereas the political goals of the IRA were confined locally to the future of the island of Ireland, Hamas, by its own admission, is part of a global Islamist movement," they wrote in an article for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Furthermore, while the IRA hated the British and killed innocent Brits - while they saw Britain as the enemy - they never denied the legitimacy of the British state. IRA leaders never gave blood-curdling lectures and sermons lauding the day when there would be no England, when Catholic rule would reign in Britain. The same cannot be said of Hamas or fellow travelers in the Arab world. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, presently promoting a one-state solution called "Israstine," told students via a video conference at Georgetown University Wednesday that "If you want to preserve this group, the Jews as an ethnic group, Palestine is not really the right place. The Middle East is a sea of Arabs. Take them to Alaska or Honolulu or the Hawaiian Islands or the Pacific islands, and they can live peacefully in an isolated setting." The IRA and their supporters, as much as they hated the British, never advocated carting them all off to Nauru or Tuvalu. The IRA was a brutal terrorist organization, but it was a terrorist organization much different from the ones that Israel copes with. For instance, it sometimes sent warnings before detonating bombs; it did not have the support of the Catholic Church; and it did not sanctify death and perpetuate a death cult. Furthermore, the IRA didn't really pose a grave threat to any of Britain's neighbors. Granted, at times it made common cause with the Basque separatists in Spain, but neither Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands nor Germany were threatened by the IRA. Contrast that to Hamas and Hizbullah, whose radical brands of Islam threaten Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and perhaps even the Persian Gulf. The neighborhood also plays another dimension in the differences between the situations. As Brew and Frampton pointed out, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Republic of Ireland "had become a force for stability and peace in Northern Ireland and worked in close cooperation with the British government in the search for a settlement. The same cannot be said of Israel's neighbors. On the contrary, Iran and Syria continue to support Hamas and encourage its violent campaign, offering it arms, funding, training and sanctuary." Mitchell obviously understands all this and, at a speech at the INSS in December said, "No two countries, no two conflicts are the same. So what happened in Northern Ireland cannot be precisely replicated here or anywhere else. But it does offer an example of what can happen when peace makes a better life possible." Still, when setting out, Mitchell - an avid sports fan, who chaired a committee in 2006 that investigated the rampant use of steroids in baseball - would do well to keep in mind the following observation heard in Jerusalem when word filtered down that he would be Obama's Israeli-Palestinian czar: "The Middle East is Northern Ireland, but on steroids."