The return of George Mitchell

As early as today, according to reliable reports, President Obama will appoint former Senator George Mitchell as his special Middle East envoy. Mitchell, it will be recalled, led a commission to investigate the causes of Israeli-Palestinian violence back in 2001. (Details and some takes here.)

I had the chance to spend some time with Mitchell last month, when he and I attended a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. I don’t think he’d spent much time in the region since his earlier mission, and he was clearly collecting information on all that had happened in the interim. During a twenty-minute taxi ride, he peppered me with questions about Hamas and Gaza—the new twist that will make his mission that much more difficult. I hope I set him straight.

Click here to read a transcript of his remarks at the conference (mine are there too). It’s what Mitchell didn’t say that left the greatest impression on me. Mitchell had been U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, a task he later passed on to Richard Haass, who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations. That effort was crowned with success, and both Mitchell and Haass have had frequent recourse to the Northern Ireland analogy in relation to Israel and the Palestinians. It’s a problematic one, but at least Mitchell uses it in a restrained way. When he makes it, he simply means to say that even difficult conflicts can be resolved. In contrast, Haass stretches it way too far, and once argued that “U.S. officials ought to sit down with Hamas officials, much as they have with the leaders of Sinn Féin, some of whom also led the Irish Republican Army.” Some press reports had named Haass as a candidate for the envoy slot, and I wrote against the idea because it would have been read as a nod to Hamas.

I have a small confession: I did a lot to undermine Mitchell’s last major excursion into Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. No, it wasn’t in 2001, it was exactly four years ago in 2005, when Mitchell tried to get up a conference on the subject at Columbia University, where he was a senior fellow at something called the Center for International Conflict Resolution. Columbia was in the middle of a firestorm over the abuse of students by its errant Middle East agitprofs. Israeli ambassador Danny Ayalon was scheduled to appear at Mitchell’s conference, which would have been a convenient fig leaf for the university’s embattled administration. So I raised a ruckus right here on this blog. (With my typical understatement, I wrote that Columbia president Lee Bollinger “should have to jump through a hundred more hoops before an Israeli ambassador crosses 116th Street.”) Ayalon, who knew nothing about the problem at Columbia, called me (and others) to discuss it, and in the end he pulled out, for which I praised him highly. Mitchell’s conference collapsed, but I felt sorry for him, since he had gotten caught up in the mess inadvertently. I summed that up in a post entitled “Poor George Mitchell,” which I ended with these words: “Maybe Mitchell should go back to real-life negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. Prospects look better there than they do on campus.”

Last month, I told Mitchell in jest that he should try his hand at Mideast mediation once again, and he brushed off the suggestion. Little did I know. I welcome George Mitchell back, and wish him better luck this time.

Pointer: I’m quoted today in this New York Times article by Isabel Kershner, “Few Israelis Near Gaza Feel War Achieved Much.”