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Obama's Mideast envoy George Mitchell brings patience, resolve

In Northern Ireland, he 'failed' 700 times but ultimately secured a deal in 1998 after decades of hatred and violence.

By Staff writer / January 22, 2009

From humble beginnings: The son of an Irish janitor and a Lebanese mother who worked in Maine's textile mills, George Mitchell went on to become Senate Majority leader.

Bebeto Matthews/AP/File

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If anyone can salvage the tattered Israeli-Palestinian road map to peace, it just might be George Mitchell.

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The former senator from Maine, named today as Obama’s Middle East envoy, brokered peace in Northern Ireland after decades of hatred and bloody violence. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a different bird, many of the skills Mr. Mitchell honed in Belfast bode well for his ability to get the Mideast peace process back on track.

This is a man who stood up to Oliver North in the Iran-contra hearings, took on Major League Baseball with an investigation into steroid abuse, and won the trust of warring factions in Northern Ireland. In one particularly telling example, a Unionist leader who had had harshly criticized Mitchell’s appointment told the press two months later that he was “an excellent chairman.”

'Positively biblical' patience
But despite his reputation for being tough, Mitchell is also known for his ability to cultivate good will. I got to meet him a few years ago when he came to speak at my college, and though I have no centuries-old vengeance against anyone, if I did I would have felt free to tell him about it. Sitting cross-legged on the couch in V-neck sweater and loafers, low-key and thoughtful, he seemed like someone who could listen. And listen. And listen.

And that’s exactly what he did in Northern Ireland. Our staff writer Bob Marquand described his patience at the time as “positively biblical,” comparing him to Job. (It was also Bob who related the Olly North episode – read The Point man for peace in N. Ireland for more.)

"What he's been through ... makes him George the Lion-hearted," a White House source told Bob. "But Mitchell is going to trade on all that credibility by the end of Good Friday. He's in the end game, and he is telling the Irish, 'Go back to conflict, or have peace, but I won't do this forever.' Given his own role, those are high stakes."

And because he’d listened, he got it. The deal was sealed the next week.

More than 700 'failures,' but he kept at it in N. Ireland
He had people walk away, he had cease-fires broken, but he always found a way to bring people back to the table. When I heard him speak, he said he’d “failed” upward of 700 times. But the reason the talks ultimately succeeded, he added, is because the participants came back after each failure.

What kept him going, despite the weekly transatlantic commute and the death of his brother during this time? In a great profile piece about Mitchell, the Monitor’s Jane Lampman reveals the firm foundation of his resolve:

"When my son was born," he says, "late one night, I started thinking about what his life would be like if he'd been born in Northern Ireland." He called his staff in Belfast to ask how many children had been born on that day in Northern Ireland - it turned out to be 61. "I began to think how different the prospects would be for them had they been born in the US, even though their parents' aspirations would be the same as ours. That strengthened my resolve. I put out of my mind once and for all any idea of leaving the talks and committed to bring it to a conclusion."

Of course, he's already been involved in getting the Middle East peace process back on track. His 2001 Mitchell Report was praised at the time, but the recent fighting in Gaza is testament to the work left to be done. Obama is on it, though, calling Middle East leaders on his first day in office and naming Mitchell on his second.

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