Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The Resignation of George Mitchell

by Elliott Abrams
May 13, 2011

U.S. Mideast Envoy George Mitchell in Cairo December 15, 2010.

U.S. Mideast Envoy George Mitchell in Cairo December 15, 2010. (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters)

George Mitchell resigned today as the president’s special envoy for the Middle East. Mitchell was appointed the second day President Obama was in office, January 22, 2009, and his role was given great importance. He was a symbol of the new administration’s determination to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He made innumerable trips to the region, gave many press conferences, and assembled a substantial staff. So what happened?

I am told that the final straw for Mitchell was a failure to convince the White House that the president’s speech next week must include a American detailed plan for Middle East peace. That would be a very bad idea, rightly rejected (if my sources are right) by the White House. Mitchell was said to believe that such a plan could bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table now for a serious negotiation.

This is extraordinary, for it seems to overlook the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement signed two weeks ago. Israel is not going to negotiate with a delegation containing Hamas representatives, whether an American plan is on the table or not. Moreover, both parties would likely have rejected parts of any detailed American proposal (while officially applauding it, of course), so Mitchell’s idea would have left the president looking weaker. It was bad advice.

In fact, Mitchell’s advice has been disastrous all along. He is one of the fathers of the idea that a 100 percent construction freeze in Jerusalem as well as all the West Bank settlements is a necessary precondition for peace talks. Such a total freeze is impossible for any Israeli prime minister, and had never previously been viewed by Palestinian leaders as a prerequisite to going to the table. Of course, once Mitchell got that approach adopted by the president, the Palestinians had to adopt it as well; they could not risk appearing less demanding than we were. The end result was frustration on all sides. In a strikingly nasty interview with Newsweek, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told the story this way: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.” It is sad to say so, but for about two years now Israeli and Palestinian officials alike have been complaining that Mitchell had strong ideas and meant well but did not listen to them. That the president saw Mitchell off with a written statement rather than a warm personal embrace may suggest that he had worn out his welcome at the White House too. The president thanked Mitchell by saying that “as he returns to his family, George leaves behind a proud legacy of dedicated public service….” That does not make it sound like the administration plans on enlisting him again in any other capacity.

Who should replace Mitchell? The Bush Administration had no special envoy, and the Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary for the Near East did the heavy lifting when there was a need for diplomatic action. That is a better model. If a new envoy is named now, he or she will have nothing to do: at least until the Palestinian elections next year settle the role of Hamas in their political system there will be no negotiations. That suggests the old Washington practice of “dual hatting:” if you absolutely have to have an envoy, name the current Assistant Secretary for the Near East or some other State official with a real job. Then you can say you still have an envoy, but that person won’t have to do make-work and gin up trips to looks busy.

The president has made the right decision, if my information is right, in diminishing the attention to Israeli-Palestinian matters in his forthcoming address and concentrating instead on Bin Laden and the Arab Spring. The “peace process” has been brought to a screeching halt by the deal between Fatah and Hamas. The president would do himself no favors by making it a central part of next week’s speech.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Michael S. Greenberg

    Dear Mr. Abrams:

    I enjoyed your article. Your statement that a total freeze is impossible for an Israeli Prime Minister appears to be a critical issue. Can you explain what you meant by this?


    Michael S. Greenberg

  • Posted by Yesh Prabhu

    This article, it seems to me, is devoid of logic, and downright bizarre. For a very long time Netanyahu used to say that he can not negotiate for peace with the Palestinians because they are divided. Abbas does not represent all the Palestinians, he used to say. Now that the Fatah and the Hamas parties have reconciled and have agreed to form a united government, Netanyahu is saying, “How can I negotiate with the united Palestinians? The Hamas, the terrorists, are now part of the government.” So, Netanyahu did not wish to negotiate because the Palestinians were divided, and now Netanyahu does not wish to negotiate because the Palestinians are united. Obviously he does not want peace with the Palestinians because the status quo suits him perfectly: It will give him more time to continue with the expansion and proliferation of Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinians’ ancestral lands.

    Fortunately for the Palestinians and the world, September is fast approaching. The UN General Assembly will most certainly recognize Palestine as a free and independent state, bounded by the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Also in September, both France and Britain will recognize Palestine. At least 112 nations around the world have already recogonized Palestine. President Obama can then have a cup of tea with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House, and commiserate about the tragedy that has befallen on Israel in spite of his vetoing of resolutions at the UN Security Council in behalf of Israel.
    Yesh Prabhu, Bushkill, Pennsylvania

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    God only knows what sort of “detailed plan” Mitchell would want to pitch at this point . And if he sees the Hamas/Fatah coalition as a responsible bargaining partner … then his time to leave is long past . The Obama Administration is confused enough without adding this foolishness to the equation .

  • Posted by Maine's Michael

    Good bye to an incompetent, agenda burdened hack whose glory days have long been over.

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