Parsing Obama’s Words on Mitchell Appointment

Intelligence analysts and diplomats must be poring over Obama’s carefully scripted remarks today at the State Department where he confirmed the appointment of Sen. George Mitchell as Special Envoy for the Middle East for clues as to precisely where U.S. diplomacy, particularly with respect to Israel and the Palestinians, is headed. (I wrote up the appointments in a news story that you can find here, and I’m hoping Helena Cobban will add her analysis on the IPS service over the next 12 hours.)

First, I should say I think the appointment itself is as good as one could hope for, precisely because of the ADL’s Abraham Foxman’s complaint that Mitchell was “meticulously even-handed” in his April, 2001, report on how to curb the violence of the second intifada and get the peace process back on track. In that respect, he’s a whole lot better than Dennis Ross, and, given his political savvy, and his stature and influence among fellow-Democrats in Congress, his views on the conflict will be much more difficult for AIPAC, WINEP, ADL, etc. to counter than if the Special Envoy were Richard Haass or Dan Kurtzer.

Second, Mitchell himself, I thought, made clear that he expects to report directly to Obama himself, not just to Clinton, when he said that the effort to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians “must be backed up by political capital, economic resources, and focused attention at the highest levels of our government,” meaning, I presume, the Oval Office. Clinton added to the notion that Mitchell’s authority is considerable, saying “he will lead our efforts to reinvigorate the process for achieving peace between Israel and its neighbors” (emphasis mine). The active verb “lead” contrasted with her description of Holbrooke’s role: to “coordinate across the entire government an effort to achieve United States’ strategic goals in (Afghanistan and Pakistan),” to which she then added his work “will be closely coordinated, not only within the State Department and, of course, with USAID, but also with the Defense Department and under the coordination of the National Security Council” (emphasis mine again). Holbrooke himself then noted that Clinton was his “immediate boss” and that his mandate was to “help coordinate” the various agencies working on the region. (I tried to find out if there was a difference in protocol between a “special envoy,” Mitchell’s title, and a “special representative,” Holbrooke’s, but no one in the White House and the State Department could tell me.)

But what really caught my eye was Obama’s own words about Mitchelle’s role; specifically, that “he will be fully empowered at the negotiating table” — or plenipotentiary — meaning that he will be THE U.S. negotiator, the man all the parties will have to deal with. I don’t see how, even if Ross gets his seventh-floor State Department office and his exalted title as “ambassador-at-large” and “senior adviser” to Clinton (as prematurely announced by the WINEP memo disclosed by Chris Nelson more than two weeks ago), he will be able to supervise, let alone direct, Mitchell’s work. (It’s also inconceivable that Mitchell would have accepted the position if Ross had been given some kind of supervisory role.) Of course, it will be very interesting to see where Mitchell’s headquarters will actually be located.

Third, I found in Obama’s remarks about Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict evidence of markedly greater even-handedness in describing the perspectives and needs of the two parties, as also noted by the folks at NAF Task Force: “President Obama,” it said, “found a language that managed to be both staunchly supportive of Israel and its security while at the same time conveying genuine empathy for the Palestinian predicament and Palestinian dignity. President Obama achieved this by addressing the suffering of Palestinian civilians as an issue in its own right rather than as a derivative of Hamas behavior. In doing so he found a vocabulary and a nuance that will likely be welcomed in the Middle East.

“On Gaza policy President Obama articulated the elements of a package that will be necessary for a ceasefire to hold. Notably he included a cessation of rocket fire, a prevention of weapon smuggling, a full IDF withdrawal from Gaza, and an end to the closure on Gaza as part of a comprehensive package. The last component, the blockade, had not been prominently addressed by the last administration. While the broader policy outline on the peace process did not change, the priority given to this issue from day one (or day two to be more precise) and the appointment of George Mitchell, suggest a renewed urgency and a comparative thinking similar to the previous approach with Northern Ireland.”

What the task force was referring to was the following statement by Obama: “Now we must extend a hand of opportunity to those who seek peace. As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime, with the international and Palestinian Authority participating.” (emphasis mine) Two things to note about this formulation: 1) the opening of border crossings to normal commerce, as well as humanitarian assistance, has long been a Hamas demand based on what it had thought Israel had agreed to when the aborted cease-fire was first forged last June; and 2) the “participa(tion)” of the Palestinian Authority could be of a mainly symbolic nature, and one that Hamas may well find acceptable, if it hasn’t already accepted it. It falls far short of a (impossible-to-enforce) demand that the PA reassert its authority within Gaza. A similar vagueness about the PA’s role follows in the next paragraph on international assistance to Gaza which, Obama said, “will be provided to and guided by the Palestinian Authority.” (emphasis mine) That “guided by” falls far short of “controlled by” or some other similar formulation and, if anything, appears designed to encourage reconciliation between the PA and Hamas, at least on rebuilding Gaza.

Now, it’s true that Obama is insisting that he will not treat Hamas as a “genuine party to peace” unless and until it meets the Quartet’s three conditions (from which France and others have begun to dissent, in any case). Similarly, he’s calling for Arab states to support “the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad,” which most observers appear to agree has been gravely weakened by the Gaza war. But, it seems to me, that these appeals, coupled with the vagueness of the PA’s role in “participat(ing)” in a monitoring regime and “guid(ing)” international aid, are kind of pro forma, and that the administration recognizes that Hamas will remain the de facto authority in Gaza and will have to be dealt with as such.

Here again is the NAF Task Force’s take: “The Northern Ireland process which Senator Mitchell oversaw was of course predicated on broad inclusivity of political actors and on the behavioral (i.e. ceasefire non-violence) seat at the table, rather than ideological/political conditions.” In the current context, that would mean that maintenance of the cease-fire by Hamas (provided, of course, that the border crossings are opened (with the PA’s participation) will be rewarded in some way even if it doesn’t explicitly comply with the Quartet’s three conditions.

The Task Force then helpfully goes on to quote from a 2007 article co-authored by Mitchell and Haass regarding lessons learned from the Northern Ireland process:

“Confidence needs to be built before more ambitious steps can be taken. Front-loading a negotiation with demanding conditions all but assures that negotiations will not get under way, much less succeed.

“Parties should be allowed to hold onto their dreams. No one demanded of Northern Ireland’s Catholics that they let go of their hope for a united Ireland; no one required of local Protestants that they let go of their insistence that they remain a part of the United Kingdom.

“They still have those goals, but they have agreed to pursue them exclusively through peaceful and democratic means. That is what matters.

“Including in the political process those previously associated with violent groups can actually help. Sometimes it’s hard to stop a war if you don’t talk with those who are involved in it.”

If that indeed is the vision that Mitchell is authorized to take to the Middle East as ambassador plenipotentiary, then there may be grounds for some hope.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. The nature of the Obama administration’s policy towards Israel and Palestine would be reflected in the way it reacts to the UN demand for an investigation of Israeli bombing the UN head quarter in Gaza. Successive US administration have not only allowed but aided Israel to ride rough-shod over the UN up till now. Israel has seen that just one phone call from its Prime Minister to the President of the US can influence America’s voting in the Security Council, even at the cost of humiliating its own Secretary of State. I do not think we need to wait for too long to see the colour of the present administration’s Middle East policy.

  2. I think TuTuG misses the point of potentially laying ground for hope. If you insist on a sudden difference-in-kind response to the latest Israeli attack, then you push the Israelis farther away from the table. We would like to see Israel called to account by a sanctioned international body for its atrocious attacks on Gaza – but would we rather see this act right now, or some kind of lasting peace in two years? We may all want to “see the colour of the present administration’s Middle East policy” right away through some stark act, but just referring to colour means that things are not black and white.

  3. I am resally getting tired of hearing, as I again heard from Obama, that “Israel has a right to defend itself”, especially as Israel considers everything it does “self defense”, as did George Bush and his neocon infested administration. I am waiting to hear Obama say that Palestinians have an equal right of self defense. We need to keep in mind that it is the destruction of the Palestinians as a people and the theft of their land that is at stake, not Israel that is under serious threat. We need to remember who is the victim – the Palestinians – and who is the victimizer – the Israelis – to see who is in greater need of the self defense.

  4. I’d like to see Israel be called to account for its war crimes now. The reason is the following–the fact that the U.S. has provided cover for Israel’s violation of international law (and the Gaza assault is just one of a long string of violations)–has encouraged Israel to become more criminal in its use of military force on Palestinian civilians. The Palestinians also need some sort of international force to protect them from the Israeli military which regularly goes in to the West Bank and assasinates people, arrests children, and confiscates land to continue its colonization project in the West Bank.

  5. If the Arabs put the money into America’s two near-identical parties on the scale that Israel and its US agents and adulators contribute, Obama would become more even-handed in a heartbeat. He owes no favors to the GOP “Christian Zionist” galoots who said he was a secret Muslim; but like all other pols in this age of voter disgust and apathy about national politics, he has to screw for the shekel.

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