It is too early to evaluate the direction the Mitchell mission is taking. Mitchell’s preliminary visit, immediately after the war in Gaza and just days before Israel’s elections, can only be defined as an orientation tour. Hence at this early date, we can address the Mitchell mission only in terms of the direction George Mitchell appears to be headed.
Based on this first foray into the region, Mitchell’s mission can already be characterized as enveloped in a paradox: he is not addressing all those Middle East actors who will have to be addressed if progress is to be achieved and if the principles laid out by President Barack Obama for dealing with the Middle East are to be honored.
Here we must recall the backdrop to Mitchell’s appointment and examine the course of this first visit. Back in 2001, it was Mitchell who coined a certain equation linking cessation of both Palestinian violence and Israeli settlement expansion. In the ensuing years, US President George W. Bush and Israeli PM Ariel Sharon managed to address that equation in rather unique terms: total rejection of Palestinian violence, a wink and a nod at settlement expansion, but also–the removal of all the settlements from the Gaza Strip.
This, and Hamas’ takeover of power in Gaza, put the focus on the West Bank, where President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad have resolutely worked against Palestinian violence despite the absence of movement by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, on the settlement issue. Now the legitimacy of the Abbas/Fayyad duo is called into question by the expiration, several weeks ago, of Abbas’ term of office. In parallel, Egypt is renewing efforts to establish a Palestinian unity government, which will almost certainly lead to Palestinian elections as well.
So Mitchell is really waiting for not one but two very relevant governments to resolve the issue of their composition. For this reason, and because of the humanitarian aftermath of the war in Gaza, the practical focus of his first visit was on the need to formulate and implement new arrangements for Gaza: prevention of weapons smuggling on the one hand, but facilitation of reconstruction aid on the other.
One additional background factor is relevant here. Mitchell excelled in his mediation role in Northern Ireland because of his legendary patience and readiness to listen to all parties to a conflict and include them in its resolution. (A second background factor, the fact that Mitchell differs from most of his predecessors in the Middle East role in that he is of Arab rather than Jewish background, is of doubtful relevance. He can be expected to promote American interests, just as his Jewish predecessors did.)
Here we arrive at the paradox of Mitchell’s mission, at least as manifested in his first visit. Mitchell ostensibly represents both Obama’s readiness to talk to America’s Islamist adversaries as well as his own legacy of including all combatants. In addition, he concentrated during this visit on ways to channel reconstruction aid into the Gaza Strip. Moreover, his mandate presumably includes not only Israeli-Palestinian but Israel-Syria issues as well.
Yet Mitchell did not attempt to talk to Hamas or even visit the Strip during the visit. Like many others in the West and the Arab world, he appears to believe it is possible to rebuild Gaza yet ignore its (Hamas) government. His itinerary took him to Ramallah, Cairo, Amman and Riyadh–but not to Damascus. He cancelled a visit to Turkey after a high-level Israeli-Turkish clash at the Davos World Economic Forum–as if this somehow rendered Ankara’s own Middle East mediation efforts, past and future, less relevant.
A Mitchell visit to Gaza, Damascus or Ankara would not in any way have betrayed Israel or the administration’s basic undertaking regarding Israel’s security. On the contrary, it would have served them. If Obama and his emissary for Arab-Israel affairs intend to represent a new and refreshing departure in America’s approach to the Middle East, Mitchell’s first visit was not characteristic of this approach. It seemed to reflect attitudes regarding the identity of America’s interlocutors that characterized the Bush era.
Let’s hope this is not a harbinger of things to come.