Poor George Mitchell

I feel sorry for former Senator George Mitchell, who organized the ill-starred conference on the Arab-Israeli peace process at Columbia University. It was scheduled for today, but yesterday he “postponed” it, after Israeli ambassador Danny Ayalon pulled out over Columbia’s mishandling of its own Arab-Israeli conflict.

In November 2000, Mitchell took on the Middle East, as head of a U.S.-initiated fact-finding commission established to look into the causes of Israeli-Palestinian violence. (The main cause was obvious; he’s since died.) The Mitchell Commission, as it came to be known, issued its report in May 2001, but events quickly swamped its recommendations. In July 2002, the former senator joined Columbia as a senior fellow of its new Center for International Conflict Resolution.

Last March, the new operation took its first stab at “Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” the title of a panel it co-sponsored with Rashid Khalidi’s Middle East Institute. The event was to feature exactly two people, Mitchell and Khalidi, and was tactfully scheduled for Passover eve (April 5). “Will the experts in world conflict resolution resolve this scheduling conflict?” I asked here in the Sandbox. The organizers promptly postponed the meeting (they confessed to “a very large oversight that should not have happened”), and promised another try, which would include a representative of the Israeli side.

It was a bad start, but Mitchell went back to the drawing board to plan today’s conference. According to today’s Columbia Spectator, he got acceptances from Israeli deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert, former Palestinian prime minister Ahmad Qurei, and Palestinian minister-of-this-and-that Nabil Shaath. All of them eventually bowed out because of more pressing business. So too did William Burns, who runs the Middle East at the State Department, and who’s been out in the field. In the end, Mitchell still had Ayalon, Egyptian ambassador Nabil Fahmy, and former Israeli consul-general in New York Alon Pinkas. On the Palestinian side, I hear he would have had PLO representative Hasan Abdel Rahman, and of course he had Professor Khalidi.

I’ve organized a few of these things myself, and I know they can let you down. You begin to feel the ground shift away from you, and so you downgrade the operation—which means a shorter program, a more modest meeting room, and less hoopla. But that didn’t happen at Columbia, where the event was slotted for the entire day in the Low Library Rotunda, with greetings from President Lee Bollinger. I suspect that no one cut the throttle because the university needed this event badly, and the higher-ups still hoped for that photo op with Ambassador Ayalon. After he dropped out, the exercise became pointless. (Pinkas was keen to appear, making this pretentious statement to the Forward: “Not showing up is not an option for the Zionist cause.” Please. Maybe it’s not an option when you’ve got no other job but public speaking for the Greater Talent Network, Inc.)

So it’s back to the drawing board again for poor George, and he really does deserve sympathy unlike the Columbia administrators who tried to use his conflict-solving zeal to save their crisis-management chestnuts. Maybe Mitchell should go back to real-life negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. Prospects look better there than they do on campus.