George Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy to the Middle East, has resigned, President Barack Obama announced today.
Mitchell’s departure comes as Obama prepares to deliver a speech on the Middle East next week. Obama is scheduled to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah on May 17 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 20.
Obama named Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader and Northern Ireland peace negotiator, as a special envoy in January 2009 to coordinate Israeli-Palestinian talks, which broke down weeks after they began in September 2010. With Mitchell’s resignation, the process Obama launched to reach the framework of a peace accord by September may grind to a halt.
“This is confirming the end of the road for a process that hadn’t been working for some time,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy group based in Washington.
Obama said in a statement that Mitchell’s “deep commitment to resolving conflict and advancing democracy has contributed immeasurably to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security.” Mitchell’s deputy, David Hale, will serve as the acting envoy, Obama said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement that her agency would miss Mitchell’s “steady leadership and wise counsel.”
Ahead of Developments
With no direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, and without Mitchell to nudge them, the Obama administration must move quickly to keep ahead of developments at the UN and the region.
Palestinians have pushed for a United Nations vote by September to formally recognize their territories as a state. France is among the countries considering support for the measure. There is potential for broad Palestinian demonstrations, said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister.
As Palestinians wait for that UN vote, they have also been noting the “Arab Spring” protests sweeping the region, said Muasher, now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based policy group.
“I think that by September, the deadline for a UN vote on recognizing a Palestinian state, if nothing serious moves on the peace process, I would expect some peaceful movement on the Palestinian street,” Muasher said. The Arab Spring protest movement “has shown Palestinians that peaceful movements, non- violence does work,” Muasher said.
Obama appointed Mitchell upon taking office, signaling the priority he placed on brokering an agreement to the decades-old conflict.
Negotiations ground to a halt several weeks after they started in September 2010, when Netanyahu refused to extend a partial 10-month construction freeze in the West Bank and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he wouldn’t negotiate until all construction was halted.
About 500,000 Jews have moved to the West Bank and Jerusalem since Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Middle East war. The UN says the settlements are illegal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory.
Israel says the settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to any country before the 1967 war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied.
The administration’s basic approach -- of using Mitchell as a mediator working with presidential imprimatur to bring the two sides together -- was ill-suited to the political realities in Israel, Alterman said.
That might have worked with Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, Alterman said. In contrast, Netanyahu didn’t see how negotiations would benefit Israel, Alterman said.
“One of the problems is that you didn’t have an Israeli government that signed on to that approach because, as they saw it, this would have diminished their security, not enhance it,” Alterman said.
An April 27 decision by rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government has further clouded prospects for progress on a settlement. Netanyahu said a unity agreement would put an end to any chance of peace talks.
The administration, which considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization, has reacted cautiously to the Palestinian announcement.
In Rome this month for talks on Libya, Clinton was noncommittal. “We are going to be carefully assessing what this actually means, because there are a number of different potential meanings to it, both on paper and in practice,” Clinton said.
Mitchell, 77, served as chairman of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland that led to the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. A Democrat, Mitchell represented Maine in the U.S. Senate from 1980 to 1995. After leaving office, Mitchell also led an investigation of steroid use for Major League Baseball.
President Bill Clinton in 1999 gave Mitchell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.
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