The appointment of Senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy for the new Obama administration was generally received positively in Palestinian political and intellectual circles. The public, which judges developments only by their results, remained indifferent.
The appointment confirmed President Barack Obama’s declared intention of early engagement and thus contributed to building some credibility for the new administration. This is all the more true since Mitchell’s appointment avoided the usual names that were being floated around as possible alternatives.
Mitchell, who was familiar with the situation during his last mission in 2001, will be facing a dramatically changed reality, however. His previous mission–that ended with the famous Mitchell report, which formed, in a distorted way, the basis of the roadmap–created an impression that he understood the fundamental and legitimate concerns of both the Palestinian and Israeli sides.
In his report, Mitchell called for an immediate and complete cessation of all Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories, with no exception for "natural growth". In parallel he called for simultaneous and effective Palestinian measures to stop any kind of violence. The essence of his report was that the two parties were expected to fulfill their respective obligations together.
The Bush administration, however, distorted Mitchell’s findings to instead apply pressure on the Palestinians to fulfill their obligations as a prerequisite for any Israeli action, particularly regarding settlement activities. That order of obligations, which was enshrined in the roadmap, enabled Israel to freely continue its policies and practices that have simply served to alter the reality on the ground, consolidate the occupation and preempt the prospect of a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders.
During his recent visit, Mitchell renewed the American commitment to a two-state solution. He did not, however, give any indication as to how he would go about changing the current dynamic, which contradicts the two-state solution. The main challenge for Mitchell this time will be to bring to bear American pressure on Israel to stop the expansion of settlements, which was the primary factor that caused the current political deterioration, including the radicalization process in Palestinian public opinion.
The second challenge Mitchell will face is the dramatic change that has occurred to the respective political realities in Palestine and Israel since his last visit. The Palestinian reality no longer includes Yasser Arafat, while the national consensus for a negotiated solution with Israel for which Arafat stood has been replaced by a political division resulting from the growing strength of Hamas, which promotes the idea of armed resistance as the only workable approach to reach probably the same legitimate objective as Arafat strived for.
Israel has also witnessed further radicalization in public opinion. It is approaching an election where public opinion polls show Labor, which during the mid-1990s was the main proponent of the two-state solution, languishing in fourth place. Above Labor are Kadima, which was formed by Ariel Sharon, who tried to unilaterally impose a solution on the Palestinians; the rightwing Likud Party, which was always opposed to the Oslo process; and Yisrael Beitenu, the ultra-rightwing party that advocates the population transfer of Palestinians from Israel.
It has been concluded in these pages before that radicalization on both sides is a direct result of the failure of the peace process, subsequent Israeli unilateralism and an extremely biased American mediator. Whether Mitchell agrees is up to him, but the only glimmer of hope in this situation is precisely the absence of the previous administration, which was a very negative factor for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and for stability in the region in general.
Should it be prepared to engage this conflict even-handedly, the Obama administration will not be alone. The EU and other European states as well as regional and particularly Arab states, are ready to play a constructive role in a strong American-led effort to secure the implementation of the relevant resolutions of the United Nations Security Council in order to ensure a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that corresponds to international legality.