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Sen. Mitchell steps down as Middle East envoy. Was it a 'mission impossible'?

The White House says Obama, who lauded Sen. Mitchell as a 'tireless advocate for peace,' remains committed to addressing the issue. He meets with the Jordanian and Israeli leaders next week.

By Staff writer / May 13, 2011

US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell gestures during a news conference in Jerusalem in this September 15, 2010 file photo. Mitchell, who has led the Obama administration's unsuccessful effort to restart direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, plans to resign, a US official said Friday.

Ammar Awad/Reuters/Files

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Washington

President Obama’s Middle East envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, is stepping down, the White House announced Friday – a move that highlights the glaring lack of progress in what was once Mr. Obama’s top foreign-policy priority, Israeli-Palestinian peace.

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The departure of Senator Mitchell, known for brokering a Northern Ireland peace accord under the Clinton administration, also suggests the waning of Obama’s early fancy for special envoys to address key international issues.

The White House said Friday that Mitchell is stepping down for personal reasons, but that the president remains committed to addressing one of the thorniest issues in US foreign policy.

“This president’s commitment remains as firm as it was when he took office,” spokesman Jay Carney said in announcing that Obama would have a statement Friday on Mitchell’s resignation. “The fact that this is a hard issue, an extraordinarily hard issue, is not news to anyone in this room or anyone who’s ever attempted to work on it over these many years.”

But the seasoned diplomat’s departure couldn’t help but be linked around Washington with the fruitlessness of the more than two years Mitchell dedicated to his task.

Obama praised Mitchell as a "tireless advocate for peace" in the statement released by the White House Friday afternoon. The president also said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has asked the deputy Middle East envoy, David Hale, to serve as acting envoy with Mitchell's departure.

In one sense the announcement seemed to come at a particularly bad time: Obama will deliver a major policy speech on the Middle East at the State Department next week, and the administration insists that the president is sticking to his goal of reaching a breakthrough such as a framework peace agreement by September.

Obama is set to receive both Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House next week.

But on the other hand, Mitchell’s departure merely confirmed the inactivity that characterized his office in recent months. Mitchell’s once-regular forays into the Middle East had fallen off as the Arab Spring gave the region a new preoccupation – and denied Mitchell one of his key interlocutors in former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

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