He gave no official reason, but a White House statement on Friday said the 77-year-old former Senate majority leader was returning to his family after 28 months of difficult, and ultimately unsuccessful, negotiating.
“He took on the toughest job imaginable and worked grueling hours to advance the interests of the United States and the cause of peace,” the statement quoted Obama as saying. It said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had appointed Mitchell’s chief deputy, David Hale, as acting envoy.
Whether intentionally or not, the shift came just as the White House was preparing for what is likely to be a pivotal week in Middle East diplomacy. Obama is scheduled to deliver a major policy address on the region on Thursday, followed by talks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House. Netanyahu’s visit to Washington will include a speech to Congress that will lay out Israel’s views on a possible peace deal.
Administration officials praised Mitchell’s efforts and stressed that his departure would not lessen White House resolve to work toward a peace settlement. Deputy national security adivser Denis McDonough said the decision to quit — first communicated in a letter to the White House on April 6 — was Mitchell’s alone.
“He made clear when he and the president first talked about the job that he would take on the assignment for two years,” McDonough said. “And now being north of two years, he made an assessment that he wanted to make good on what he had talked with president about.”
McDonough said the administration would “remain as committed as we have been since day one” on securing peace in the region. And he deflected suggestions that the administration’s efforts have been fruitless with Mitchell at helm. In early 2009, when Obama took office, the Gaza war was just winding down and neither side had spoken to the other for months, he noted.
“We have made good progress here on critical security improvements for the Israelis,” McDonough said. “We have continued to work very closely with the Palestinian security and institution-building efforts.”
Still, administration officials have acknowledged deepening frustration over the lack of progress in restarting peace talks, which resumed for a couple of weeks but broke down after Israel’s partial moratorium on new West Bank settlements expired. In recent months, as many of Israel’s Arab neighbors were caught up in the Arab Spring movement, Mitchell’s once-frequent visits to the region ended.