George Mitchell: His Dogged Drive for Mideast PeaceBy
George Mitchell, the former Senate Majority Leader who is now President Barack Obama's Special Envoy to the Middle East, has a record of bringing intractable opponents together, dealing with delicate issues, and brokering sustainable agreements. Most famously, he chaired the peace talks in Northern Ireland that led to the historic Good Friday agreement of 1998. And in 2006 he headed a commission that examined allegations of steroid abuse by Major League Baseball players. He also served for several years as chairman of Walt Disney (DIS).
Mitchell has spent the past year trying to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table after a stalemate that critics attribute to the Obama Administration's early focus on freezing new Israeli settlements. Mitchell was a guest on The Charlie Rose Show on Jan. 6. This is an edited version of those conversations.
Do you have a hard time with the perception that the U.S. is not an innocent broker in the Mideast?
Oh, I hear it a lot here, in Europe, and in the Middle East, but I don't believe it. That assertion is based on the assumption that the U.S. cannot at the same time be totally committed to Israel's security, which we are, and be totally committed to the creation of the Palestinian state, which we are. To the contrary, I believe they are mutually reinforcing. It will help Israel get security for its people if the Palestinians have a state.
What's the mood over there about the possibilities in a new year?
I think there's more optimism there than here, but you have to temper it with reality —the complexity and length of the conflict. [One focus will be on] economic growth, helping the Palestinians improve their economy and encouraging the current Prime Minister—an impressive person, Salaam Fayyad—who is trying to build from the ground up the institutions that can govern effectively on Day One of the Palestinian state.
There is this impression, reflected in a New York Times editorial, that the past year has not been successful because the Administration stressed a settlement freeze.
A little over a year ago—before I knew President Obama and had any idea I would be asked to take this job—I was in Israel, and I gave a speech at a university. And I was asked a question about Northern Ireland. In my answer, I pointed out that the peace agreement in Northern Ireland came 800 years after the British domination began. After the speech, an elderly gentleman, hard of hearing, came up to me. He said in a loud voice: "Senator Mitchell, did you say 800 years?" I said: "Yes, 800 years." He said: "No wonder you settled, it's such a recent argument." To think that an issue that's gone on longer than 800 years is going to be resolved in a few months if we only take this step or that is really, I think, misperceiving the complexity and difficulty.
But the point was that by focusing on a settlement freeze—which Israelis were unlikely to agree to—you created disappointment from the beginning because it was unachievable.
All you have to do is go back and read the papers over the past five or six years to see that it was not the Obama Administration or the Secretary of State or me who suggested a settlement freeze. Every Arab country, including the Palestinians—and I visited 13 of them before we began substantive discussions with the Israelis—said that there would be no progress without a freeze. Secondly, you've been in a lot of negotiations. If you want to get 60%, do you begin by asking for 60%? So what we got was a moratorium—10 months, far less than what was requested but more significant than any action taken by any previous government of Israel for the 40 years that the settlement [movement] has existed.
Why is a peace agreement possible?
Because it's in the best interest of the people on both sides.
It's been in their best interest for a long time.
Despite the horrific events of the past half century—all the death, destruction, mistrust, and hatred—a substantial majority on both sides still believes that's the way to resolve the problem.
Do you have a time frame? Two years?
We think that the negotiation should last no more than two years. Personally, I think it can be done in a shorter period of time.
What is different from the efforts of previous Administrations?
Because in at least the last two Administrations, efforts began late in the term. This President appointed me two days after he was sworn in, and you know what he said to me? "I want you to go over there tonight." I said: "Mr. President, I've got a wife and kids. I don't have any clothes with me. I have to go home and tell them I'm going to leave."
You have been Senate Majority Leader, a district court judge, and it is said Bill Clinton was prepared to put you on the Supreme Court.
He offered the position to me.
And yet is this the most challenging, the most exciting thing that you have done in your professional life?
You left out steroids and Major League Baseball. Actually, this is very difficult. Let me tell you, it takes a lot of courage for these political leaders to operate in these circumstances. There are direct threats against them and their families.
O.K., you have lots of carrots. Do you have any sticks—other than saying: "Goodbye, take care of yourself, we're out of here"?
Yes, of course, but you have to be very careful about how and when you use them.
So you say to Israel, look, if you don't do this...what?
Under American law, the U.S. can withhold support on loan guarantees to Israel. President George W. Bush did so on one occasion. But we think the way to approach this is to try to persuade the parties what is in their self-interest.
Why is President Obama's popularity so low in Israel? It's 4%.
I've heard the figure, but it's simply not true. A plurality supports him in Israel.