Mideast Peace Envoy Mitchell to Resign: Who Knew He Was Still on the Job?

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Senator George Mitchell is no fool, so it should come as no surprise that he’s no longer prepared to undertake the fool’s-errand assignment of being President Barack Obama’s Special Envoy on Middle East peace. News that the 77-year-old retired senator who brokered the Northern Ireland peace agreement will on Friday resign the position will only have raised eyebrows among those who’d forgotten that he still held the job — or more aptly, that such a position still existed within the Obama Administration. Because it’s been self-evident for quite some time now, arguably from even before Mitchell was appointed, that there is, in fact, no Israeli-Palestinian peace “process” in any meaningful sense of that term.

The “peace process”, referring to a set of reciprocal steps on the ground and talks over defined final status issues on a set time frame, agreed in the Oslo Accords, ended a decade ago. Since then, all we’ve seen have been vain efforts to revive it. But the gulf between the most that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to concede to the Palestinians, on the one hand, and the least that President Mahmoud Abbas or any Palestinian leader will accept as a basis for ending the conflict, is so vast that there have, in fact, been no serious negotiations between the two sides during the Obama Presidency. (Informal talks between Abbas and Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, had been held during the final year of the Bush Administration, but those, two, had failed to produce significant progress.)

Domestic political concerns preclude the Obama Administration pressuring the Israelis to give more, while the overwhelming international diplomatic consensus — as reflected in February’s UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity, in which the U.S. stood alone in backing the Israeli position — precludes won’t countenance pressing the Palestinians to settle for less than the international community believes is their due. Ergo, stalemate. And it’s beneath Mitchell’s dignity to pretend otherwise by shuttling back and forth to hold meetings that everyone knows are going nowhere. (Besides, everyone knows that when Netanyahu wants to talk seriously, he talks directly to Obama, and even then is not exactly accommodating.)

While Mitchell’s move wont effect peace prospects — it is a symptom of their absence, rather than the cause — it does highlight a problem facing President Obama, who reportedly plans next week to make another speech aimed at “resetting” relations with an Arab world that has been overwhelmingly disappointed by his failure to deliver on the promises of the last one. That speech, made in Cairo in 2009, stressed Obama’s priority of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the creation of a Palestinian state, and declared, “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.  And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Mitchell’s appointment, on Obama’s first day in office, had been intended to signify his determination to push through a peace deal within two years.

But no significant body of opinion in the Arab world believes Obama has delivered on that promise. And Mitchell’s resignation simply confirms that the situation is unlikely to change. As a result, the  New York Times reports,  “(White House) officials said, the current plan is for the president to keep his focus on the broader changes in the Arab world, rather than to present a specific new plan for reviving the peace talks.”

Yeah? Well, good luck with that. It may be more comfortable for Obama to talk about the killing of Osama bin Laden (a personage, it must be said, in whom the Arab world has never had remotely the same degree of interest as Americans have had) and, selectively, about Arab uprisings. But the newly empowered Arab peoples are even less inclined than their U.S.-backed autocrats had been to accept Washington’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tens of thousands of protestors turned out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday, calling for swifter change in Egypt and an end to sectarian violence, and expressing support for the Palestinians. And most Arabs don’t believe that the U.S. lacks the means to pressure Israel to withdraw from occupied territory.

So, while Mitchell’s resignation may be a reminder the things that Obama doesn’t really want to talk about when he addresses the Arab world next week, those issues are very much on the minds of the very same Arabs fighting to democratize their country. And they won’t be fobbed off with shrugs and excuses as easily as Mubarak was.