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Can Obama envoy George Mitchell kick-start Mideast peace?

Colleagues ask: If the former Northern Ireland peacemaker can't do it, who can?

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After leaving Belfast in 1999, he led a six-month fact-finding mission into the second Palestinian intifada.

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His report called for, among other things, an end to Israeli restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement, a freeze to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and an end to Palestinian violence. It was nothing if not evenhanded.

Such impartiality will be crucial because of the second problem that Mitchell faces: his nationality.

Mitchell's Americanness was a positive asset during the years he shuttled across the Atlantic to Belfast. In Northern Ireland, Americans were welcomed by both sides. "Protestants and Catholics look west to the US," says Professor Guelke. "There's a kind of support for America that doesn't exist in other parts of the world."

Such as Gaza.

It's not the only difference between Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Though there are some parallels – deeply divided societies, questions of legitimacy, consequences of partition, atavistic views of history – the Northern Ireland Troubles look one-dimensional by comparison with the Middle East.

"There is the occupation of Palestinian territories, the presence of huge numbers of refugees in Gaza and Arab countries and abroad. Ireland never had issues of settlements, let alone something as difficult as Jerusalem" to resolve, says Rime Allaf, an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict at London's Chatham House think-tank. "I don't think you can apply the lesson from Northern Ireland to Middle East, because the situation is so completely different," she adds.

In Northern Ireland, it was clear whom Mitchell had to talk to; not so in the Middle East. Even advice like "talk to Hamas" is easier said than done. To whom in Hamas do you talk: the political leadership in Damascus, the political leadership in Gaza, or the military leadership?

As if that weren't complicated enough, matters may become even more delicate if, as expected, the Israeli right wins Tuesday's election. Benjamin Netanyahu, who would then be most likely to form a government, has vowed he will purge Hamas from Gaza altogether.

"George Mitchell joins a long line of peace envoys," says Dr. Aran. "The personality can make a difference with fine-tuning things, but with the two wars against Hezbollah [2006] and in Gaza [2009], the split in the Palestinians, the swing to the right in Israel, the marginalization of Fatah, these have a much greater bearing than any personality can."

Few expect early breakthroughs in what is likely to become a long slog of shuttle diplomacy. Mitchell himself characterized the conflict as "complex and difficult" and said he was planning to establish "a regular and sustained presence in the region." (He returns to the West Bank at the end of February.) Some see his early moves as a statement of intent, not an exercise in peacemaking.

"I don't think that his real job is to make peace," says Ms. Allaf. "I don't think it's to go there and work out a deal; it's too early in the Obama administration. They are just touching base and showing that Obama is not ignoring the issue. We know he has bigger issues – the economy, Iraq Afghanistan; he needs to show that he is keeping an eye on the Middle East."