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.

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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. @deborah

    Sadly, no international force would protect anyone. As we saw in Lebanon the Israeli’s were able to target UN observation posts with impunity with any criticism vetoed by the US. The way forward is surely sustained public pressure on what is laughingly called the international news media.

  2. Israel is drunk with stolen power. Obama surely realises this. He fully intends to alter this state of affairs. How and When. That is the question. However, I believe that he will try to make Israel understand that every dead Arab is another nail in the Jewish State’s coffin. Caught as it is in grip of Lord Acton’s terrible dictum, Israel probably cannot reform, even to save itself.

  3. Read somewhere: “Israel has as much right to self-defense as Germany when it invaded Poland.”

  4. Dear Mr. Lobe,
    Thank you for a good overview of the Mitchell appointment. He is a good man and I am very pleased to see Obama ‘be his own man’ in appointing this seasoned diplomat to the post of ‘Tell the Israeli government, they have to obey international rules and laws’ person. Now, we have to have an envoy come to the US and tell us, we also have to do the same.

    I suppose, this envoy will be Chinese.

  5. The hapless Palestines will have to make do with whatever bits and crumbs come their way. The western powers have been shouting ‘black is white’ since 1948, but however loudly they shout, a spade is a spade is a spade. A destruction of a country called Palestine, a huge injustice for anybody who had eyes to see, did not trouble the concience of any of the Western leaders. The many ruthless masacres of the Palestinians, the terrorism unleashed against them, the daylight robbery of their property, the bulldozing of their houses, the stealing of their water resources, all these were no issues at all for the west. The west has been harping on the security of their tormenters, the tormenters of the most insecure people in the world today. The cruelty of trapping a hungry impoverished people with all escape routes blocked, in the tiny piece of land of Gaza, and then killing them like trapped mice is an issue to be ignored, an issue which will be soon forgotten. Nobody champions their right to defend themselves.The west has made it clear that the Palestinians are a subhuman race which does not deserve the same rights as the rest of humanity. Oh yes, let us not openly talk about our view that they are a subhuman race like Hitler did, that will not be prudent.
    And on top of this the west has the temerity to lecture China on human rights!

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