Mitchell’s Inevitable Resignation

At age 77, George Mitchell’s resignation as President Barack Obama’s envoy on Arab-Israeli affairs may have indeed been for personal reasons, as he claimed. More likely, however, it came out of frustration at the Obama administration’s failure to pressure the right-wing Israeli government to make the necessary compromises for peace.

The failure of the Obama administration to adequately support Mitchell in pursuing the peace process is all the more remarkable given that the former senator is such a quintessential establishment figure.

Mitchell’s Rise

Mitchell had been a prominent Maine attorney, Democratic Party activist and US district judge before being appointed to the US Senate in 1980 following President Jimmy Carter’s selection of Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie to be his secretary of state, which left the Maine seat empty. Mitchell was subsequently elected to two full terms, quickly rising in the ranks to serve as majority leader between 1989 and 1995. Raised in a blue-collar family in Waterville, Maine, his mother was a textile worker who had emigrated from Lebanon as a young woman.

Although he was one of the most prominent Arab-Americans in politics, Mitchell rarely openly embraced his Arab heritage. As a senator, he accepted large amounts of campaign contributions from right-wing political action committees that supported Israeli policies, and was a strong proponent of unconditional military and economic aid to the rightist Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Mitchell criticized Republican Secretary of State James Baker from the right for characterizing the Jewish settlements ringing eastern Jerusalem on lands seized by Israeli forces in the 1967 War as part of the Occupied Territories. Mitchell effectively argued that the United States should recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of a part of the West Bank, in contravention of international law and a series of UN Security Council resolutions.

Following his retirement from the Senate in 1995, Mitchell led the commission that oversaw the Northern Ireland peace process and played an important role as a mediator in negotiations between Catholic and Protestant leaders that produced the Good Friday Accords of 1998. In an analysis with potential relevance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mitchell argued that the peace process succeeded in Northern Ireland because of the recognition that all interested parties had to be at the table and could not be excluded because they engaged in terrorism; that while insisting upon an end to the violence, it was not necessary to demand full disarmament; and, that while insisting upon peaceful means, one cannot ask a people to give up on their dreams.

Mitchell subsequently served on a number of corporate boards, bipartisan commissions and academic positions.

In the fall of 2000, the UN General Assembly created a commission charged with investigating the causes of and possible solutions to the recent outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence. As a means of countering the UN commission, which was expected to stress Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law, President Clinton appointed a US-led team to put forward its own report. After a US-convened security conference in Sharm al-Shaykh, Egypt, Clinton announced the formation of a fact-finding committee to be led by Mitchell. Other members of the commission included former US Sen. Warren Rudman, also a strong supporter of Israel’s earlier right-wing governments, as well as a former president of Turkey, Suleyman Demirel, a strong ally of Israel. The three outnumbered the more moderate commission members – Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland and European Union representative Javier Solana.

The United States determined that the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, better known as the Mitchell Commission, would operate primarily out of Washington, and that its investigations in Israel and the Occupied Territories would be strictly limited. The commission’s report, released at the end of April 2001, held neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians solely responsible for the breakdown of the peace process or for the ongoing violence. Instead the report called for a cease-fire, in particular for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the interim government, to “make clear through concrete action to Palestinians and Israelis alike that terrorism is reprehensible and unacceptable and that the PNA will make a 100 percent effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators.” It urged Israel to “ensure that the [Israeli Defense Forces] adopt and enforce policies and procedures encouraging non-lethal responses to unarmed demonstrators with a view to minimizing casualties and friction between the two communities.”

The report noted that the violence was not solely a result of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to an Islamic holy site in occupied East Jerusalem the previous autumn, nor was it part of a Palestinian plan to launch a violent struggle. The uprising, it stated, was rooted in Palestinian frustration over the failure of the peace process to get their land back and fueled by unnecessarily violent responses by both sides early in the fighting. Yet, when the report failed to call for an international force to separate the sides, it underscored the commission’s unwillingness to support decisive steps necessary to curb further bloodshed. Although the Mitchell Commission Report did not call for Israel to withdraw from its illegal settlements, as required under UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465, 471 and 476, it did call for a “freeze on all settlement activity including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements,” emphasizing that “a cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the Government of Israel freezes all settlement activity.”

To minimize civilian casualties on both sides, the report called on the PNA to prevent gunmen from firing at Israeli military and civilian areas from Palestinian populated areas. It also called on Israel to lift its closures of Palestinian population centers, transfer all the tax revenues it owed to the PNA and permit Palestinians formerly employed in Israel to return to their work. The Mitchell Commission Report also emphasized that Israeli security forces and settlers needed to “refrain from the destruction of homes and roads, as well as trees and other agricultural property in Palestinian areas” and that the PNA should “renew cooperation with Israeli security agencies to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that Palestinian workers employed within Israel are fully vetted and free of connections to organizations and individuals engaged in terrorism.”

Although formally accepting the Mitchell Commission Report, the succeeding administration of George W. Bush, as well as Congress, stressed the need for a cease-fire from the Palestinian side, effectively ignoring the report’s insistence on a settlement freeze and other Israeli responsibilities.

Obama’s Envoy

On January 22, 2009, President Obama announced Mitchell’s selection as special envoy for Arab-Israeli affairs at a public forum at the State Department. Choosing the relatively moderate former senate majority leader over more hawkish candidates for the post gave hope among some analysts that Mitchell’s appointment could signal that the incoming administration would pursue a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, with pressure from Congressional Republicans as well as hawkish Democratic leaders, Obama refused to pressure Israel to live up to its obligations under the Quartet and other peace initiatives, such as freezing the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, even vetoing a UN Security Council resolution reiterating the illegality of the ongoing Israeli colonization drive. Given that no viable Palestinian state would be possible as long as these illegal settlements kept expanding, and given that Obama has refused to threaten to withdraw even a portion of the billions of dollars of unconditional aid annually sent to prop up Israel’s rightist government in order to press Israel to withdraw from these settlements or even cease their expansion, it may have become obvious to Mitchell that the US government was not really interested in Israeli-Palestinian peace.

President Obama has also blocked consideration of a United Nations Human Rights Council investigation, which documented possible war crimes by Hamas, because it also documented possible war crimes by Israel as well as sabotaged independent investigations into an illegal Israeli attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla on the high seas. Similarly, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisting that the United States will not support any Palestinian government that includes cabinet members who refuse to adopt the Quartet principles while continuing to support an Israeli government dominated by cabinet members who refuse to adopt the Quartet principles, it may have become clear that Mitchell would not be allowed to be an honest broker.

Furthermore, according to the Palestine Papers, the 1,600 leaked documents from the Israeli-Palestine negotiations, the Palestine Authority had made a series of major unilateral concessions, including allowing the Israelis to hold on to the larger settlement blocs, giving up on Palestinian refugees’ right to return, sharing Jerusalem, providing strict security guarantees and more, but the Israelis still rejected a peace agreement. With Obama refusing to push Israel to accept such a compromise and Mitchell realizing it was unrealistic to expect any more concessions from the Palestinian side, he may have realized his mission was hopeless.

Indeed, as long as there is such an asymmetry of power between an occupying power that has by far the most powerful armed forces in the region and an occupied people under a weak governing body, which controls a few pockets of noncontiguous territory surrounded by the occupying power, even an “even-handed” approach was doomed. The fact that Obama would not allow Mitchell even that much support may have made his resignation inevitable.