BBC News & Nicholas Watt / The Guardian – 2009-01-26 22:42:59
US Envoy Starts Middle East Push
LONDON (January 27, 2009) — US President Barack Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is on his way to the Middle East, heralding a new burst of diplomacy in the region. He will meet President Hosni Mubarak to discuss boosting Gaza’s ceasefire and renewing the peace process.
Egypt has been mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. Mr Obama said he had asked his envoy to seek genuine progress during his visit. Mr Mitchell will also travel to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia.
Separately, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he was heading to the Middle East to join efforts to cement a permanent ceasefire. The diplomatic moves come a day after European Union Humanitarian aid chief Louis Michel blamed the ruling militant movement Hamas for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. He called the destruction left by Israel’s offensive “abominable”, but said Hamas bore “overwhelming responsibility”.
About 1,300 Palestinians including 400 children were killed in Israel’s 22-day assault, while 13 Israelis died, some as a result of Palestinian militant rocket fire.
US envoy George Mitchell is to visit Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia during a week-long tour, with European stops including Paris and London, said state department spokesman Robert Wood.
He said Mr Mitchell would meet “senior officials to discuss the peace process and the situation in Gaza”.
Mr Obama said the new envoy would take an active approach. “The charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress,” he said. “And when I say progress, not just photo ops but progress that is concrete.”
It remained unclear whether Mr Mitchell would travel to the Gaza Strip.
Israeli and Palestinian faction representatives have visited Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials since a non-negotiated ceasefire came into effect on 18 January. Hamas wants an end of Israel’s punishing blockade of Gaza.
Israel, which will hold a general elections on 10 February, wants a long-term ceasefire and curbs on Hamas rearming.
© BBC MMIX
George Mitchell’s Patient Diplomacy
Shepherded Northern Ireland to Peace.
Now for the Middle East
Nicholas Watt / The Guardian
LONDON (January 23 2009) — Palestinian and Israeli leaders will, over the coming months, be spending a great deal of time with a remarkable man who possesses the essential qualities if a real push for peace is to be made in the Middle East.
George Mitchell — the former Democratic Senate majority leader who has been appointed by Barack Obama as his Middle East peace envoy — spent years working painstakingly to shepherd the Northern Ireland peace process.
His charm and patient but quiet determination as Bill Clinton’s envoy to Northern Ireland were crucial ingredients in the search for peace, which began in earnest when he was appointed in 1995 to compile a report on how to resolve the seemingly intractable issue of decommissioning paramilitary weapons.
Mitchell was involved intensively in the negotiations until the Good Friday agreement in 1998. But he was always on hand until the end of the Clinton presidency in 2001.
So how will Mitchell approach his new role? I think there may be a few clues in an interview I conducted with him in March 2007 for a Guardian series on the Northern Ireland peace process.
This is what we can expect:
Talk to the men of violence. Mitchell told me:
“Go back and read [Tony Blair’s] first speech in Belfast and basically what he said is the train is leaving the station and we want everybody on board. I thought it was very well done and demonstrated a great deal of careful thought and knowledge about the subject.”
Don’t try to achieve perfection. Mitchell said of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which did not lead to a final political settlement until 2007:
“It was a political agreement which represented the best that could be achieved at that time. When you make a political compromise you accomplish as much as can be accomplished under the circumstances which exist at the time. So the result is that you get an agreement that viewed years later with the benefit of hindsight will necessarily be imperfect and not have accomplished what you want. But this was about what could be done at that time. That is why I said on that very day in numerous interviews that, by itself, this agreement did not guarantee peace and stability, that many hard decisions lay ahead. What it did was create the opportunity to accomplish those objectives. It was not in a sense a final act but an important step in a process toward achieving the objective.”
Expect to perform a delicate balancing act. Mitchell explained:
“Keep in mind that constituencies in democratic societies frequently advance conflicting objectives. Every public official is constantly wrestling with the tension between the demands of his immediate constituency and the needs of the larger society. The two messages [Northern Ireland leaders] were getting, and really they’re still getting from their constituents, are look we want this settled.
“We don’t want this conflict to continue but we want it settled on terms that are acceptable to us. And of course terms that are acceptable to one community may not be acceptable to the other. So the task of leadership is to reconcile those tensions as best you can under the circumstances. So both sides wrestle and try to figure out how far can you [go]. That is what happened. In retrospect it’s not so difficult to measure whether they went far enough or too far or what people did and how they went along.”
Display patience and scrupulous impartiality, even with the most difficult negotiators. Mitchell, who was appointed chairman of the all-party talks in June 1996 after 14 hours of negotiations in which unionists attempted to block his nomination, said he won round the hardliners by deploying his skills as a federal judge.
“Over time what happened was that because there was so much controversy and difficulty getting started I really served as a neutral arbiter, more like a judge which I had been before. I think they began to gain some confidence that I would act in a fair and impartial way. Indeed over time I established what I believed were quite good personal and cordial relations with all of the parties, including those who had been opposed to my participation.”
Be prepared to set a deadline for an agreement, as Mitchell did in February 1998, though this should be done with care because it does not always work.
“You have to be careful about that. Afterwards, at numerous press conferences, I was asked why didn’t you set a deadline a year ago or six months ago. The answer was I think had I done so, I think the process would have failed. It was a risk. In retrospect it worked. But there is a risk involved and the time has to be right for it and I think the time was right for it. To me the critical act by the parties was their agreement to the establishment of a deadline. In mid-February  … I drafted a plan. I then went to each of the parties, the political parties and the governments, to get their assent. Each party agreed to a process which would involve a deadline.”
Be imaginative. Mitchell was called back to rescue the process when it appeared to be on the verge of collapse in 1999 — he happened to be in London receiving an honorary knighthood from the Queen. The parties suggested that meeting in the traditional Belfast venue would not work, so Mitchell summoned the party leaders to the residence of the US ambassador in London.
“You remember how it was — everybody walking into that building had to run the gauntlet of the press in or out,” Mitchell said of the original venue on the Stormont estate. “Of course they got a lot of tough questions and so it was very tough to negotiate. They suggested to me moving to a neutral place. I originally thought of coming to the US. But that was not practical so we ended up settling on the ambassador’s residence in London.”
Get leadership from the top. Mitchell told me that John Major had shown “bravery, courage and commitment” in Northern Ireland, but that he was hampered by his weak parliamentary position. The breakthrough came when Tony Blair came to office and built a strong partnership with his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern. Mitchell told me: “We’d started in June the previous year and there had been very little progress. So there appeared to be an unlocking of opportunity and there was a sense of relief that hopefully at last we were going to move forward.”
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes