Former Maine Sen. George Mitchell spoke at a university in Jerusalem last summer and recounted his work brokering a resolution to the conflict in Northern Ireland. After the speech, an elderly man approached and asked Sen. Mitchell if he had indeed said that tensions there dated back 800 years. Yes, Mr. Mitchell said. The man “waved his arms, and said, ‘Ah, no wonder — such a recent argument.’ Only in the Middle East could 800 years seem like a recent argument,” the senator said on “MaineWatch” last week.
In January, the president named Mr. Mitchell his envoy to the Middle East to bring peace to a region where grudges date back millennia. Mr. Mitchell admitted to being only slightly less skeptical today about the prospects for success.
“You have a high level of mistrust,” he said in the interview, but believes the way forward comes in creating a framework to have a “meaningful discussion.” Mr. Mitchell believes resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be enough to ease tensions between Israel and the Arab world. The way forward, he believes, is to aim for a broader goal. “You have to think in comprehensive and sweeping terms,” which the president has done.
By thinking comprehensively, he said, an Israeli-Palestinian resolution would be enhanced by peace between Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon. The president has “tied the whole thing together in a way that I think makes sense,” Mr. Mitchell said. The president’s speech in Cairo, Egypt, reaching out to the Muslim world, was part of this effort.
Rather than push Arab states to recognize Israel and normalize relations with it, he has asked them to “take steps” toward that goal and hold meetings on energy and water, strengthen trade ties, allow commercial airline overflights and foster cultural exchanges.
“We’ve gotten a good response, so far, from many of them,” he said.
At the same time, while asserting that the U.S. commitment to Israel is “unshakable,” he has encouraged Israeli leaders to make concessions on West Bank issues.
Mr. Mitchell told MPBN that friends advised him not to take the Middle East envoy post, suggesting it was an impossible task. But Mitchell believes “there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended,” because such conflicts are “sustained by human beings,” and so “can be ended by human beings.”
Mr. Mitchell’s demeanor in interviews typically ranges from placid to professorial; the only reaction approaching passion came it was noted that Saudi Arabia had balked at taking steps toward normalizing relations with Israel. “If you take the first ‘no’ you get as the final answer, you’ll never solve any conflict, anywhere,” he said. In Northern Ireland, over the course of 700 days, both sides said “no,” Mr. Mitchell said.
Middle East peace is achieved the same way the summit of Mount Katahdin is reached — one step at a time. Mr. Mitchell’s thoughtful, measured, judicious nudging may succeed where others have failed.