The expected appointment of a special envoy to breathe new life into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could split the pro-Israel center while pleasing the Jewish left and outraging the right. The schism could be particularly deep if, as was widely reported this week, President Barack Obama appoints former Sen. George Mitchell to the job.
Some Jewish leaders say the very qualities that may appeal to the Obama administration — Mitchell’s reputation as an honest broker — could spark unhappiness, if not outright opposition, from some pro-Israel groups.
“Sen. Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been ‘even handed’ — it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support.
“So I’m concerned,” Foxman continued. “I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East.”
But David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said Mitchell could be a “good and logical choice” if he is given a mandate focusing mostly on crisis management. “He has the respect of both sides, and he would have direct access to top administration officials, which is very important.”
Mitchell worked closely with pro-Israel activists during his 15 years in the Senate and won international acclaim for brokering the “Good Friday” agreement that ended sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. But the fact that he does not have the personal connections to Israel of other leading candidates for the envoy job and his reputation for building relationships with both sides in negotiations worry some pro-Israel leaders who have become accustomed to the hands-off approach of former President George W. Bush.
Just as disturbing to those skeptical of Mitchell was his role as head of a commission that produced a 2001 report in the wake of the second intifada calling on Israel to freeze the construction of new settlements while demanding that the Palestinians take strong action to stop attacks against Israel.
But some pro-peace process activists say Mitchell, if he is appointed, would bring a new stature to U.S. mediation efforts and signal that Obama’s campaign-trail promises of involvement were not empty ones.
Samuel Lewis, a former ambassador to Israel now associated with the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), said Mitchell “has enough stature to carry the weight of the president with him; that’s very hard to do. He has a very good record on the Irish negotiations. He has infinite patience, and he has worked well with both sides.”
Lewis added another factor that sets Mitchell apart from other possible contenders for the special envoy job: “It’s also interesting that he’s not Jewish,” he said. “That probably sends a good signal of neutrality.”
That neutrality, more than any anti-Israel bias, is what’s likely to worry some pro-Israel leaders the most.
But several Mideast experts say that the appointment of a special envoy could be less than it seems.
“It’s a holding action no matter who the special envoy is,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “The appointment may be meant to keep people in the region quiet.”
With the Palestinian leadership divided between Hamas and Fatah, the chances for any major breakthroughs on the Israel-Palestinian front are remote, other observers said. The appointment of a high-level envoy like Mitchell may be intended to create the impression of intense administration activity when, in reality, the new president hopes to just keep the conflict from boiling over while focusing on more immediate problems like the tanking economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even as the crowds from Tuesday’s inauguration were dissipating and celebrants were dressing for the inaugural balls, the incoming administration’s foreign policy team was preparing for quick action to implement President Obama’s promise to actively engage in Middle East peace efforts from Day One.
Despite that promise, other priorities will predominate in the early days of the new administration.
“Clearly, he has to focus on the American economy first,” said Robert O. Freedman, a Mideast scholar at Johns Hopkins University. “The smart thing would be to appoint a special envoy whose job it would be to go around the region and talk to people for a month or two. That provides the impression of movement while buying some time.”
It would also help administration policymakers figure out how to approach the biggest impediment to any serious peace process, he said: the fact Hamas retains control over Gaza, while a weakened, disorganized Fatah is holding on to power in the West Bank.
But Freedman said Obama might choose to fulfill his promise to rebuild U.S. influence in the Arab world by “pushing [Israel] on the issue of illegal settlement outposts, which Israel has already promised to uproot. That may well happen early in the administration.”
Despite Israel’s commitment to remove them, any push from Washington after eight years of inaction on the outpost issue will spark anger from pro-Israel groups, he said, while pleasing groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
The most immediate Mideast problem for the administration, several analysts said this week, is helping stabilize the new and tenuous cease-fire with Hamas, not trying to restart long-stalled negotiations on the central issues in the conflict.
“First, they have to do everything possible to help stop the influx of weapons coming in by land and by sea,” said the AJC’s Harris. “That will require the cooperation of the Egyptians and the Europeans.”
It will also require fleshing out of the broad U.S.-Israel memorandum of understanding signed last week calling for increased cooperation between the two countries in ending Hamas arms smuggling, but providing few details of how to accomplish that.
Another key to stabilizing the situation, Harris said, is “continuing efforts on the West Bank to improve the security situation and point to economic development, in order to demonstrate to the people of Gaza what they’re missing because of their Hamas leadership.”
Harris also said the new administration must act quickly to “reassure Israel it will understand the measures it has to take to protect its own security.”
But Harris also said the appointment of a special envoy could be a plus for the region — depending on his or her mandate.
“The real question is whether the principle object of a special envoy is conflict resolution or conflict management,” he said.
Seeking quick progress toward a broad agreement will run headlong into the upcoming Israeli election and the fact it will take months for a new government to get up and running, Harris said, as well as the Gaza-West Bank split.
But if the focus is on managing the current conflict and laying the groundwork for a more extensive peace process once conditions have improved, Harris said, Mitchell might be an appropriate choice and he has demonstrated the patience to take negotiations one step at a time.
Right-of-center Jewish groups made it clear they will sound loud alarm bells over the likely choice of Mitchell.
“In the meetings I’ve participated in with George Mitchell, he made it clear he sympathized with the Palestinian position over the Israeli position, and blamed Israel more than the Palestinians for the lack of progress toward peace,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “We will be expressing our strong concerns that this appointment would be a mistake. It would send an additional message that Obama is going to pressure Israel more than the Palestinians.”
Groups on the Jewish left say the appointment of a renowned negotiator like Mitchell may signal the administration won’t limit itself to mere crisis management.
“Someone of his stature would indicate a greater seriousness and determination,” said Diane Balser, executive director of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. “If he is appointed, he would be an envoy of real stature.”
Jewish voters, if not the major pro-Israel groups, would support a major peace thrust by someone like Mitchell, she said.
“Jews voted overwhelmingly for President Obama — and they knew they were voting for a candidate who stresses diplomacy and not military solutions. They understood they were voting for a break with current policy.”
But JINSA’s Shoshana Bryen said picking a high-profile envoy like Mitchell would be a “mistake of extraordinary proportions” because it ignores dramatic changes in the region, including growing rifts in the Arab world and the growing involvement of Iran in the region. The constellation has shifted so much that you need new thinking.”
Appointing a high-level envoy like Mitchell, she said, points to a return to the outmoded policies of the Clinton administration.
Some analysts say the goal posts have been moved by pro-Israel groups that have become accustomed to a Bush administration that made sweeping statements about Mideast peace and Palestinian statehood while letting Israel go its own way.
Major pro-Israel groups “tend to favor the kind of mediator with the least prospects of success,” said MJ Rosenberg, a longtime pro-Israel activist and policy director for the Israel Policy Forum (IPF). “George Mitchell worries them because he was so successful in Northern Ireland, a success that was built on his persistence and his utterly impartiality … and a deal means Israeli concessions which they have never favored. The stronger the candidate for envoy or mediator — the more of an honest broker he or she would be — the more uncomfortable they are.”