Can Obama envoy George Mitchell kick-start Mideast peace?

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Tough task ahead: President Obama (r.) met with Middle East special envoy George Mitchell in the Oval Office last week after returning from his first official trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
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Few people can kick off a résumé like this: "1995-99: solved one of the world's most durable and intractable conflicts."

So when President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were casting around for a peace envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell was the obvious choice.

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?

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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.

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

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."

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