Can Obama envoy George Mitchell kick-start Mideast peace?
Colleagues ask: If the former Northern Ireland peacemaker can't do it, who can?
Few people can kick off a résumé like this: "1995-99: solved one of the world's most durable and intractable conflicts."Skip to next paragraph
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Who better to deploy than someone experienced in the tortuous dealmaking that defused a comparable crisis and steered Northern Ireland toward a (sometimes frosty) civility?
Mr. Mitchell, a former US senator, was renowned in Northern Ireland for his patience, doggedness, pragmatism, willingness to listen, determination to get things done, and knack of leaving his own ego at the door.
The envoy – who returned last week from his first trip to the Middle East as Mr. Obama's envoy – is only too aware that his experiences in the British province will only take him so far. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a lot further from reconciliation than Ulster was in the mid 1990s. Even at its worst, Belfast never looked like Gaza City. But those who know him or have worked with him say his personal qualities suit him for the role of honest broker.
"He comes across as somebody who is modest, unassuming, doesn't throw his weight around," says Adrian Guelke, a professor of politics at Queen's University, the Belfast institution where Mitchell also happens to be chancellor. "He's self-deprecating, makes jokes against himself. He comes across as somebody who doesn't have an exaggerated sense of his own self-importance.
"He's prepared to listen, to take a lot of time with people."
For Gerry Adams, the Irish republican nationalist leader whom Mitchell steered toward eventual accommodation with pro-British Protestants, it was his attention to detail and refusal to be deflected by dirty tricks and endless, tedious procrastination that enhanced his reputation.
"I found him to be good-natured, humorous, and tolerant," Mr. Adams opined recently. "It is this experience that will stand him in good stead as he embarks on his journey to the Middle East."
Mitchell's initial role was more facilitator than enforcer, a go-between for the British and Irish as they explored the formulae and principles that would end up in the pivotal 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It was only later, with the agreement in jeopardy, that he exercised more muscular diplomatic skills, cajoling the parties to stick to their commitments.
Northern Ireland chops transferable?
The problem with applying Mitchell's skills in the Middle East is that the antagonists are so far from any of these elements of compromise.
By the time Mitchell was on the ground in Belfast, cease-fires had been in place for more than a year, and there was a grim realization on both sides that a deal was probably their best bet.
Sinn Fein already recognized that it could not win a guerrilla campaign and would have to negotiate; on the other side, unionists could see that the demographics were inevitably moving against them, and that powersharing was probably the best they could get.
"Mitchell's experience would be relevant providing we get to the stage of putting together a deal and then having to reconcile both sides ... but we are a long way from that," says Amnon Aran, an expert on the Middle East at the London School of Economics.
Mitchell's Middle East experience
In his favor, Mitchell is no novice in the Middle East – he has already demonstrated notable impartiality in one of the world's most emotive conflicts.