George Mitchell was appointed, with much fanfare and to the delight of many observers (including this one) on President Barack Obama’s second day in office, to the thankless task of trying to mediate an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
With far less fanfare, and an air of gloom instead of anticipation, it has now ended.
His term of office was supposed to be two years; in actual time, his tenure lasted a bit longer, but in practical terms it was considerably shorter.
Over a year ago, when it became apparent that Dennis Ross, with whom Mitchell did not see eye to eye, was working his own well-established channels with the Israelis (and in particular with Benjamin Netanyahu’s close friend and adviser, Yitzhak Molcho), Mitchell was already being sidelined.
At this point, he hasn’t been to the region in five months, and since his appointment, there’s been about a month of actual discussions between the parties.
So his resignation is rather like the end of a lopsided basketball game whose outcome has not been in doubt for some time, and the string has just finally played out; in and of itself, the resignation means very little.
What is more telling are the responses to Mitchell quitting and the timing of it.
On the responses, what could be more illuminating than these two responses?
Netanyahu: “[I regret] that the Palestinians refused to come to the talks Mitchell was working to promote, piled on an endless number of preconditions that made his job more difficult, and in the end even joined with Hamas.”
Nabil Sha’ath, senior PLO official: “The man was not given any support and he failed. I don’t really blame him. He found himself without any initiative or ability to move ahead. He found himself doing a futile job. I liked the man. He is honest and hard-working, with lots of experience.”
So Israel blames the Palestinians and the Palestinians, who take Israeli intransigence as a given, blame Obama. Just another day at the office.
But it does sum up the image of futility that Mitchell’s tenure will now come to symbolize. Israel really doesn’t want to abandon the West Bank, all the more so now because they know there’s no way to do that without including Gaza in a Palestinian state anymore.
The Palestinian leaders, for their part, have been rudely awakened to two facts: one, that they can make enormous concessions even on Jerusalem and refugees and it will not be enough for Israel. And their own population is not at all pleased even by what they have offered.
With Obama following his predecessors in his refusal to put any serious pressure on Israel while threats to aid to the PA, which is far more crucial to them than the much greater aid is to Israel, are easily bandied about, there is no hope for a resuscitation of a peace process that remotely resembles the one that is now buried. That may be for the best, but it certainly rendered Mitchell completely useless.
Mitchell’s letter of resignation was dated April 6, yet it was only made public this past Friday. And is it a coincidence that Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama ended up being scheduled for the same day as Mitchell’s resignation takes effect?
There’s a lot of room for speculation here, and a lot is being done. But it seems to me that the seemingly coincidental timing sends Netanyahu a message: we won’t play this in public, but it was you that made Mitchell’s job so futile.
Whether or not that’s true, what is clear is that Mitchell’s resignation is another factor that will make it more difficult for American-brokered talks to recommence. And even Netanyahu knows that, whether or not he really wants talks to go anywhere, their complete absence for an extended period will increase pressure on Israel.
Without talks, Israel and the Palestinians invite greater international scrutiny and involvement, and that’s a scenario that has absolutely no upside for Israel. And clearly, if there is no peace process, whether genuine or just public theater, there certainly will be no way to prevent the Palestinians from pursuing their statehood vote at the UN General Assembly in September.
That vote will most certainly be won by the Palestinians, putting Israel in the position of having to defend its actions not just against the population of an occupied territory (however “disputed” Israel would prefer it being seen as) but against a recognized member state of the United Nations.
This is the position Israel has put itself in. It is the situation Obama is going to have to address, whether in his speech later this week or the one he is expected to give in August.
In the end, Mitchell’s departure means that Obama no longer has the option of simply performing the Oslo play that he and his two predecessors in the Oval Office have allowed to run long after it should have closed.
It will no longer play in Arab capitals that can ill afford to be seen as indifferent or, worse, an obstacle to resolving the Palestinian question. And the PLO/PA seems no longer willing to take the stage in this theater any more.
With Congress in full AIPAC-driven mode and a re-election campaign for Obama just kicking off, the pressure on Obama to continue to support Israel’s occupation is at full force, and never mind the massive damage these policies are inflicting on Israel and on the US’ ability to maintain good relations in the Arab world, let alone the devastating effects on the Palestinians.
But more than ever, Obama’s choice is a very stark one: either go along with a politically motivated and strategically bereft Congress or do what is obviously in the US’, Israel’s, the Palestinians’ and the whole Arab world’s best interests and present an American peace proposal that, whatever leaders say, can be accepted, or at least worked with, by both mainstream Palestinians and Israelis.