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An Old Mission for George Mitchell

George Mitchell with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in March 2001.
George Mitchell with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in March 2001. (By Hussein Hussein -- Associated Press)

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By Jackson Diehl
Friday, January 23, 2009

"Israelis and Palestinians are staring into an abyss, facing the prospect of a future marked by years of bloody conflict, political instability and economic stagnation."

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"Along with taking immediate action to end the violence, the parties need to rebuild mutual confidence."

So declared former senator George J. Mitchell -- not yesterday, when President Obama named him a special envoy to the Middle East, but in May 2001 as he concluded a similar mission for presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The 75-year-old Arab American's return to duty was a reminder that much of what the new administration is facing in the region isn't new -- and neither is the initial strategy Obama has adopted.

Most people who hear of a "Mitchell Report" think of Roger Clemens and steroids. But five years before he investigated the use of banned drugs in major league baseball, Mitchell headed an international panel that was launched in the last days of the Clinton administration. The situation was eerily similar, in some ways, to that of today: Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed dominated the news, and U.S.-backed talks on a two-state settlement had broken down. Then, as now, an Israeli election loomed in which a right-wing candidate led in the polls.

Mitchell's recommendations, delivered during the Bush administration's fourth month in office, will sound familiar, too. He called for a cease-fire, followed by a series of confidence-building measures. The aim was to restore a climate in which peace talks could succeed. Palestinian authorities were supposed to reform their security forces and stop terrorist attacks against Israel; Israel was asked to freeze all Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza. "Expansion of settlements undermines Palestinians' confidence in Israel's willingness to negotiate . . . a viable Palestinian state," Mitchell and former senator Warren Rudman declared in an op-ed published in The Post.

The stated logic of Obama's first Middle East gambit is nearly identical to that of the Mitchell Commission. His aim, Obama told The Post last week, is "to provide a space where trust can be built." And Mitchell has no need to change his main recommendations: Now, as then, effective action by Palestinian security forces against terrorism and an Israeli freeze on settlement building remain two of the most-needed breakthroughs.

The problem, of course, is that the Mitchell plan of 2001 was a flop. Formally endorsed by all sides, endlessly discussed for more than a year, it was eventually folded into Bush's "road map" scheme of 2002 -- which, in turn, also went nowhere. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat repeatedly promised but never delivered action by the security forces to end Palestinian attacks. The new Israeli prime minister -- Ariel Sharon -- rejected the freeze on settlements. Bush and his secretary of state, Colin Powell, made no effort to overcome Sharon's resistance, and they cut off all contact with Arafat after he was caught trying to import a shipload of weapons.

This time, the landscape Mitchell faces is worse in several respects. Arafat has been replaced in the West Bank by Mahmoud Abbas, a well-meaning but weak leader -- and in Gaza by Hamas, which has just survived a three-week Israeli military offensive without losing its authority over the territory, its ability to fire rockets or its blockade-evading tunnels, or retreating from its refusal to recognize Israel. If the polls hold, Israel's next prime minister will be Binyamin Netanyahu, who devoted a past term in office to slowly poisoning both Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and relations with Washington.

So why try the Mitchell approach again? In one sense, Obama's decision is remarkable for its conservatism at a point when longtime veterans of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy are calling for a radical rethinking of U.S. strategy. But no doubt the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are listening to veterans of the last Democratic administration, such as incoming State Department counselor Dennis Ross, who believed U.S.-sponsored confidence-building would work -- if only American diplomacy were energetic enough.

Ross blamed the breakdown of the Mitchell plan on Bush's "disengagement." "If there is to be any hope for the future," Ross wrote in The Post in July 2001, "it is time to put both sides on notice that all commitments will be taken seriously now and that for our part we will no longer avoid public comment on who is living up to his obligations and who is not."

Imagine a U.S. administration prepared to demand tangible steps toward peace by both Israelis and Palestinians -- and to publicly challenge an Israeli government's dodges. That might or might not improve the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But it would have the effect of returning U.S. policy to about where it was in October 2001 -- the first time George Mitchell got a Middle East assignment from a president.


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