New US Middle East envoy George Mitchell faces an uphill battle, writes Conor Feeney, but his experience of Northern Ireland will be useful.
George Mitchell’s appointment as Middle East envoy symbolises a strong effort on behalf of the Obama administration to play an immediate role in the region. Obama has indicated he wishes to “engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress.” He has also said that when George Mitchell speaks he is doing so on his behalf.
Central to George Mitchell’s task is finding a way forward between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This territory is not unfamiliar to him. He published a report on the conflict in 2000 during Clinton’s presidency. The document was viewed as fair and balanced sufficiently taking both sides into account.
In it Mitchell stated, “Some Israelis appear not to comprehend the humiliation and frustration that Palestinians must endure every day as a result of living with the continuing effects of occupation.” He also said that, “Some Palestinians appear not to comprehend the extent to which terrorism creates fear among the Israeli people and undermines the belief in the possibility of co-existence.”
Mitchell proved his diplomatic capabilities when helped to broker peace in Northern Ireland culminating in the Good Friday Agreement. However there are significant differences in the Middle East which will make his task more difficult. First of all the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is arguably even more entrenched than were the difficulties in Northern Ireland.
Secondly the parties involved were more defined in Northern Ireland. Hamas and Fatah have deep seeded animosity towards one another. In Israel it is now virtually impossible for a government to be seated in the Knesset (The Israeli Parliament) unless a coalition is formed. This has often meant alliances with extreme right wing parties.
“When dealing with the Troubles, Mitchell did not have to contend with a British aerial bombardment of West Belfast”
The situation Mitchell now faces is even more difficult than he would have experienced eight years ago. The US has pledged it will not negotiate with Hamas until they cease aggression against Israel. It is impossible to see how a way forward can be found without the involvement of Hamas as they are fully in control of the Gaza Strip. This would be central to a new Palestinian State.
The Israeli aerial bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza last month in response to rocket fire is now at the stage of a tentative ceasefire. According to medical officials 1300 Palestinians were killed of whom 700 were civilians.
When dealing with the Troubles, Mitchell did not have to contend with a British aerial bombardment of West Belfast in the event of an IRA bomb exploding. Surely there must be a willingness on both sides to engage in a process geared towards an independent Palestinian State and an Israel free from the daily threat of terrorism. Constraint must be shown on both sides if Mitchell has any hope in initiating meaningful dialogue.
The pressing concern at present is that the ceasefire, brokered by the Egyptians, holds. Rockets have continued to be fired into Israel with the most recent hitting the port town of Askelon. Israel in response has launched airstrikes specifically aimed at ending the weapons smuggling in Gaza. If this current situation escalates and Israel launches a second ground invasion any hopes of a speedy diplomatic process would cease for a considerable time.
Last week, Mitchell returned from his first fact-finding tour of the Middle East. During this he met the major leaders in the region starting with President Mubarak in Egypt. One of his primary objectives was to gage the changes that have occurred since he last was involved. After the Israeli election takes place today, 10th February, the political landscape he faces will become clearer.
Mitchell stated, “There are no easy or risk free courses of action.” He reiterated his strong believe that peace can become a reality, “We can help those in the region achieve the peace and stability that all sides long for.” Hillary Clinton in her new position as Secretary of State has noted that Mitchell will be returning before the end of February.
If history is anything to go by, the likelihood is that Mitchell will not be successful. However Obama has shown that his vision for hope and change extends beyond the United States. The President intends to engage in far more diplomacy than his predecessor. Mitchell has shown a previous capacity to broker peace deals in seemingly impossible situations. Let’s hope he can again.