US envoy won't meet with Hamas, stop in Syria ME trip

Dovish US Jewish groups praise former Senator Mitchell for his "even-handedness."

George Mitchell 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
George Mitchell 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
New US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell will not have any contacts with Hamas nor stop in Syria during his travel to the region this week, State Department officials said Monday. Rather, Acting State Department Spokesman Robert Wood said, Mitchell was "going out to listen" to leaders in Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. There is some chance that Turkey could also be added to the itinerary. Mitchell "wants to hear what the leaders have to say," Wood said, "and he's going to report back to the secretary (of state) and the president on his trip and we'll begin to continue formulating policy from there." This will be Mitchell's first foray to the Middle East in his new role. The trip is part of a flurry of Middle East activity at the outset of US President Barack Obama's tenure, a sign of the high profile the region is set to play in the administration's foreign policy and the urgency it attaches to dealing with the conflicts there. Several members of Congress will also be getting in on the action, with delegations reportedly planning to visit Syria. Congressional staff cited security concerns in declining to discuss details of the trip. While dovish Jewish groups have welcomed Mitchell's appointment and the intense focus on Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, the move has not sat well with everyone in the community. The Zionist Organization of America put out a statement expressing its "concern" over Mitchell's appointment, noting that the former Senate majority leader who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland had produced little in his earlier work in the Middle East. In 2001, Mitchell authored a report aimed at ending the flaring violence between Israelis and Palestinians which did little to change events on the ground. The ZOA elaborated that its specific concerns "include the fact that Mitchell has always made it clear that he believes both sides are equally at fault for the lack of peace." Groups on the Left, however, have praised Mitchell for that quality, arguing that an even-handed broker stands the best chance at helping forge a lasting peace. They have also been critical of mainstream Jewish groups that have remained largely silent on the Mitchell appointment, in contrast to many other moves by previous administrations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which are often greeted with statements of support and praise. "These organizations' failure to welcome Mitchell's appointment and to wish him success speaks volumes. They apparently are uncomfortable with his appointment because of the report he submitted at the beginning of the second intifada," said one official with a dovish Jewish organization. At least one such leader, Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, has made comments about Mitchell when asked. He told the New York Jewish Week that "Sen. Mitchell is fair. He's been meticulously even-handed... But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn't been 'even handed' - it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical US support." Foxman, who released a statement in 2001 accusing Mitchell of "distorting reality" by linking Palestinian violence to Israeli settlement activity, said he would wait to judge Mitchell once he begins work. On Monday, Foxman told The Jerusalem Post that Mitchell "wouldn't be my first choice," but that he's giving him "the benefit of the doubt" since he's been otherwise pleased with the statements made by Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "He said what most of us are thinking but aren't stupid enough to say out loud," said another Jewish leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the lack of public statements from the larger Jewish organizations. "None of the rest of us wants to slam the administration on its first week, nor do we want to make this into a self-fulfilling deal where he ends up being bad for the sake of 'dissing' the Jews who had little faith in him."