George Mitchell resigned as special envoy to the Middle East last Friday. He has explained his departure as a personal decision, but its timing in the midst of significant developments, including the president’s Thursday speech, suggest more may be learned.
Sen. Mitchell represented, at least symbolically, a counterweight to Barack Obama’s principal Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, an able and experienced Middle East hand, though one with a clear pro-Israeli bias. We cannot yet know, but it may be that Sen. Mitchell played a role in persuading the president to put out at least part of an American negotiating plan, contrary to the reported advice of Mr. Ross and National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon not to arouse the Israelis.
Rouse the Israelis the president did, though he said little new, and gave reassurances on both Thursday and Sunday of U.S. commitment to Israeli security. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave similar priority to borders and security in a speech at the Brookings Institution in April, and making the 1967 borders with prospective land swaps the basis for negotiations is not new, even if past American presidents have not stated that position openly. What Mr. Obama has said is also consistent with recent proposals by Israeli intellectuals and retired security officials urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make peace — in Israel’s best interest.
Mr. Netanyahu might have responded by saying that he and the president have significant differences, but also the basis for discussion. Instead, he chose to take a defiant stance — not for the first time – -and to do this in the White House. As one presidential staffer put it: “You don’t talk that way to the president.” There are signs that the Israeli prime minister may be considering a more conciliatory approach, and well he might.
Israeli resistance should not surprise. Mr. Netanyahu expresses a long clear rightist view and public mood that Israel need do nothing other than continue occupation and “manage the conflict,” in accordance with past U.S. policy and Israeli judgment. The cost to Palestinians and even to U.S. interests in a settled situation do not matter much. Used to American indulgence, the Israelis reacted with petulance at Mr. Obama’s firmness on the need to act for an early and lasting peace.
It would be appropriate for the leaders of Congress to tell Mr. Netanyahu, among other things, that his effrontery toward our chief executive will have consequences, including reconsideration of plans for him to address a joint session of Congress. This will not happen.
Instead, we have Republican resolutions condemning Mr. Obama. Democrats have also joined in familiar bipartisan pandering at The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. Israeli security remains, to the exclusion of all else, an Israeli and congressional obsession.
Mr. Obama himself has addressed AIPAC and engaged in some dubious rhetoric. But he also stood his ground on essentials. That took political courage.
Palestinian disillusionment with American intentions and, for many, with a two-state solution has also contributed to the current state of things. Some who are inordinately influential with U.S. pro-Palestinian groups have for some time been talking of one state with equality for both Israelis and Palestinians, and civil disobedience and other nonviolent tactics to undermine Israeli dominance. They have not tried to build an American constituency, which could give Mr. Obama the basis for pushing a two-state solution.
The Fatah faction, if it can maintain its reconciliation with Hamas, proposes to have the United Nations General Assembly approve a Palestinian state in September, much to U.S. and Israeli discomfiture. Unless, however, that or a negotiated two-state solution occurs, the real challenge for Israel may be choosing between a Jewish state and a democratic one.
There is no guarantee that frustrated nonviolence will not give way to further violence. Much then is at stake.
It is an unfortunate time for George Mitchell, with his negotiating skills and experience, to have left the scene. In his absence, Mr. Obama might do well to note what another some-time Mainer, Aaron David Miller, has observed: That when American presidents have chosen to take a firm stand with Israel, the president has won. Mr. Obama needs to continue to push both Israelis and Palestinians to make the hard choices required for a just and lasting peace.
Ed McCarthy of Vienna is Maine Coordinator for Churches for Middle East Peace and an active member of Veterans for Peace.