Sen. Mitchell steps down as Middle East envoy. Was it a 'mission impossible'?

The White House says Obama, who lauded Sen. Mitchell as a 'tireless advocate for peace,' remains committed to addressing the issue. He meets with the Jordanian and Israeli leaders next week.

Ammar Awad/Reuters/Files
US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell gestures during a news conference in Jerusalem in this September 15, 2010 file photo. Mitchell, who has led the Obama administration's unsuccessful effort to restart direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, plans to resign, a US official said Friday.

President Obama’s Middle East envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, is stepping down, the White House announced Friday – a move that highlights the glaring lack of progress in what was once Mr. Obama’s top foreign-policy priority, Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The departure of Senator Mitchell, known for brokering a Northern Ireland peace accord under the Clinton administration, also suggests the waning of Obama’s early fancy for special envoys to address key international issues.

The White House said Friday that Mitchell is stepping down for personal reasons, but that the president remains committed to addressing one of the thorniest issues in US foreign policy.

“This president’s commitment remains as firm as it was when he took office,” spokesman Jay Carney said in announcing that Obama would have a statement Friday on Mitchell’s resignation. “The fact that this is a hard issue, an extraordinarily hard issue, is not news to anyone in this room or anyone who’s ever attempted to work on it over these many years.”

But the seasoned diplomat’s departure couldn’t help but be linked around Washington with the fruitlessness of the more than two years Mitchell dedicated to his task.

Obama praised Mitchell as a "tireless advocate for peace" in the statement released by the White House Friday afternoon. The president also said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has asked the deputy Middle East envoy, David Hale, to serve as acting envoy with Mitchell's departure.

In one sense the announcement seemed to come at a particularly bad time: Obama will deliver a major policy speech on the Middle East at the State Department next week, and the administration insists that the president is sticking to his goal of reaching a breakthrough such as a framework peace agreement by September.

Obama is set to receive both Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House next week.

But on the other hand, Mitchell’s departure merely confirmed the inactivity that characterized his office in recent months. Mitchell’s once-regular forays into the Middle East had fallen off as the Arab Spring gave the region a new preoccupation – and denied Mitchell one of his key interlocutors in former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

At one point earlier this year, optimism over events in Egypt and Tunisia also led to speculation that Obama’s peace initiative – and Mitchell’s role in it – might be revived. But more recently a surge of uncertainty over the direction of events in Egypt, plus the surprise reconciliation among Palestinians between President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party and the radical organization Hamas, seemed to doom any imminent return to peace talks.

The special envoy model was largely based on the centrality of dialogue and negotiation with leaders who could step up and make big decisions. But many Middle East analysts cautioned from the beginning of Mitchell’s brief in the first days of the Obama presidency that the successful negotiator was unlikely to find such leadership among either Israelis or Palestinians.

Still, Mitchell exuded a characteristic optimism from the beginning. When he was named special envoy the first week of Obama’s presidency, he told reporters he approached the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a solvable problem.

The Northern Ireland negotiations taught him that “conflicts are created, conducted, and sustained by human beings,” he said. “They can be ended by human beings.”

Yet Mitchell’s star began falling when he was unable to deliver some form of initial agreement for Obama to announce at his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly in September 2009. Some analysts said then that Mitchell was hobbled by Obama’s insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze. But by 2010 some critics were calling for Mitchell to be replaced by a fresh approach, or for the idea of a special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be dropped altogether.

Mitchell was named to his post at the same time Obama announced that another seasoned diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, would be his special envoy to what the administration called the “Af-Pak” portfolio, for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The special envoys were seen as a way for Obama to hit the ground running on critical foreign-policy issues seeming to require 24/7 attention.

But they were also seen as a way for the White House to keep control over foreign affairs when Secretary Clinton was still remembered first and foremost as Obama’s chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Much has changed since then. Clinton is now viewed as one of the most dedicated and effective members of Obama’s cabinet – and she regularly lands at the top of public opinion polls surveying the Obama team, no small matter as the president enters a reelection campaign.

Ambassador Holbrooke passed away in December 2010 and was not replaced – although the administration has relied on Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to conduct some “special envoy” duties to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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