Special Envoy Mitchell turns back doubts on Mideast peace talks -- excerpts

At a press conference, the US envoy to the Middle East turned back doubts about the resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. By harking back to his own experience and by pointing to the big picture, Mitchell brought hope to a process with a history of failure.

US Mideast Special Envoy George Mitchell briefs the press at the State Department Aug. 20 about a new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Israeli and Palestinian leaders would resume direct peace talks in Washington on Sept. 2, with the goal of a settlement in one year.

I was struck by the sense of uplift in the remarks of Special Mideast Envoy George Mitchell at his Aug. 20 press conference. He kept pointing to the larger context as he answered reporters' questions about the planned return to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, scheduled to resume on Sept. 2 after months on ice.

Given the history of failure in such talks, many of the questions naturally focused on obstacles. But the former senator determinedly turned back the doubts. He strode the moral high road and kept pointing to the bigger picture as a way around roadblocks to the final destination of two states.

While the devil may be in the details of negotiation, could it be that continual emphasis on the big picture, on the larger stakes, is what will keep negotiators at the table and result in an agreement?

Rather than sum up what he said, here's Mr. Mitchell in his own eloquent words. The following are key excerpts. The questions have been paraphrased:

Q. All parties have been down this road many times before. What engenders hope this time that these talks will have their intended end?

A. I’ll return, if I might, to my experience in Northern Ireland. I chaired three separate sets of discussions in Northern Ireland, spanning a period overall of five years. The main negotiation lasted for 22 months. During that time, the effort was repeatedly branded a failure. I was asked at least dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times when I was leaving because the effort had failed.

And of course, if the objective is to achieve a peace agreement, until you do achieve one, you have failed to do so. In a sense, in Northern Ireland, we had about 700 days of failure and one day of success. And we approach this task with the same determination to succeed notwithstanding the difficulties and notwithstanding the inability to get a final result so far, including past efforts. But past efforts at peace that did not succeed cannot deter us from trying again, because the cause is noble and just and right for all concerned.

Q. It took about nine months to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to sit down and talk with each other. What makes you think you can get them to agree to peace in one year?

A. I liken it to the first time I owned a house and had it painted. It took the painters seemingly forever to prime the building and the walls. I kept asking myself, “When are they going to start painting? We’re paying by the hour and we want some progress.” And after this seemingly endless priming, they painted it very quickly.

Now, I don’t want to suggest one year is quickly, but I don’t think that events leading up to the negotiations are themselves decisive in terms of the negotiations themselves. We believe that the statements by the prime minister regarding within one year are credible and appropriate. We believe that President Abbas shares a similar view, as do we. And that’s what we’re going to pursue.

Q. The US and Palestinian demand for a total freeze on Israeli settlements was never fulfilled, so how can these talks be considered authentic in the region?

A. We do not take the position that if you don’t get everything you want the first time you ask for it, you pack up your bags and go home. If that had been the standard applied in South Africa, there would never have been peace there; in Northern Ireland, there would never have been peace there; in Bosnia, there would never have been peace there.

It takes patience, persistence, a willingness to go back again and again, to not take the first no as a final no, to not take the 50th no as the final no or the 100th no. We are patient, we are persevering, and we are determined, and we believe there is a basis for concluding a peace agreement in the region, and that’s what we’re going to pursue.

Q. Many Palestinians and Arabs believe peace with the actual Israeli government is practically impossible. Aren’t you concerned that by setting this one-year deadline, you’ll be raising expectations?

A. The reality is, of course, that there are some in both societies who do not believe that the other side is serious, who do not trust the other side, who do not wish to proceed with the other side. And if we accept the premise that because some in one or both societies hold these views that we cannot proceed, then of course, what we are doing is consigning all of those people to never-ending conflict, never-ending difficulties. We simply don’t believe that’s a proper basis for any country, and certainly not ours, the United States, on which to base its policy.

We believe that the best course of action is the direct negotiations that result in a peace agreement ending this conflict and resulting in two states living side by side in peace and security. We believe the only way to achieve that is through direct negotiations. We believe that if those negotiations are conducted seriously and in good faith, they can produce such an agreement within 12 months. And that is our objective. We acknowledge, we recognize, as you have just stated, that there are many who don’t believe that, many who don’t want that, many who will act to prevent that.

But their lack of belief, their contrary views, their contrary actions cannot serve to prevent us from trying to deal with this conflict, nor can it prevent the leaders of those countries who both recognize that the interests of their people, the future of their societies rests upon resolving this conflict and achieving the kind of peace and stability and security from which they will all benefit.

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