In a report published in May 2001, Mitchell wrote that “a cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless [the government of Israel] freezes all settlement construction activity.”
It was the same recommendation he would make to Obama eight years later.
Within a week of his appointment, Mitchell was on a plane to Europe and the Middle East for a “listening tour.”
To Obama and Mitchell, it was a propitious time, despite the recent Gaza war. Never before had the governments of the Sunni Muslim kingdoms, from Saudi Arabia to Jordan, shared more strategic interests with Israel. The reason was the common threat of Shiite Muslim Iran, which leaders in Riyadh and Jerusalem held in near-equal disdain.
In the words of one senior administration official, Mitchell’s plan was to “expand the chess board” — that is, to ask Israel and the Palestinians to return to direct talks and to ask the Arab states to make symbolic gestures to show Israel it was serious about a wider peace.
The approach captured the essence of Obama’s view of foreign policy: everyone gives a little, everyone gets a little. And several senior administration officials believed that Obama, after a historic election at home and rock-star popularity abroad, would be able to persuade traditionally recalcitrant Middle East leaders to agree.
But no Arab leader showed an interest in helping Obama with Israel. Mitchell did hear something else on his trip — that a freeze on Israeli settlement construction would send a strong signal that the new president wanted to make a difference.
An estimated 450,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. With each new house or apartment building, the land that Palestinians view as their future state shrinks. Israel annexed East Jerusalem soon after the 1967 victory — a move not recognized internationally — and no Israeli government had frozen construction there. Asking for a moratorium from the just-elected Netanyahu, a traditional hawk at the head of a narrow hawkish coalition, would be an enormous request.
At the time, Obama made clear to close advisers that he, in the words of one of them, wanted “to demonstrate that he could change Israeli behavior on the ground” to strengthen U.S. credibility.
Mitchell agreed with the approach, acknowledging that no U.S. president had ever asked an Israeli leader for such an extensive settlement freeze.
“We got what we wanted,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a rival advocacy group to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Many of its donors are Obama supporters. “We got a president who seemed to ‘get it.’ We got a commitment to deal with this on Day One. And we got George Mitchell.”