Sent to you by Sean McBride via Google Reader: Parsing Obama’s Words
on Mitchell Appointment via by admin on 1/22/09
Intelligence analysts and diplomats must be poring over Obama’s
carefully scripted remarks today at the State Department where he
confirmed the appointment of Sen. George Mitchell as Special Envoy for
the Middle East for clues as to precisely where U.S. diplomacy,
particularly with respect to Israel and the Palestinians, is headed. (I
wrote up the appointments in a news story that you can find here, and
I’m hoping Helena Cobban will add her analysis on the IPS service over
the next 12 hours.)

First, I should say I think the appointment itself is as good as one
could hope for, precisely because of the ADL’s Abraham Foxman’s
complaint that Mitchell was “meticulously even-handed” in his April,
2001, report on how to curb the violence of the second intifada and get
the peace process back on track. In that respect, he’s a whole lot
better than Dennis Ross, and, given his political savvy, and his
stature and influence among fellow-Democrats in Congress, his views on
the conflict will be much more difficult for AIPAC, WINEP, ADL, etc. to
counter than if the Special Envoy were Richard Haass or Dan Kurtzer.

Second, Mitchell himself, I thought, made clear that he expects to
report directly to Obama himself, not just to Clinton, when he said
that the effort to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians
“must be backed up by political capital, economic resources, and
focused attention at the highest levels of our government,” meaning, I
presume, the Oval Office. Clinton added to the notion that Mitchell’s
authority is considerable, saying “he will lead our efforts to
reinvigorate the process for achieving peace between Israel and its
neighbors” (emphasis mine). The active verb “lead” contrasted with her
description of Holbrooke’s role: to “coordinate across the entire
government an effort to achieve United States’ strategic goals in
(Afghanistan and Pakistan),” to which she then added his work “will be
closely coordinated, not only within the State Department and, of
course, with USAID, but also with the Defense Department and under the
coordination of the National Security Council” (emphasis mine again).
Holbrooke himself then noted that Clinton was his “immediate boss” and
that his mandate was to “help coordinate” the various agencies working
on the region. (I tried to find out if there was a difference in
protocol between a “special envoy,” Mitchell’s title, and a “special
representative,” Holbrooke’s, but no one in the White House and the
State Department could tell me.)

But what really caught my eye was Obama’s own words about Mitchelle’s
role; specifically, that “he will be fully empowered at the negotiating
table” — or plenipotentiary — meaning that he will be THE U.S.
negotiator, the man all the parties will have to deal with. I don’t see
how, even if Ross gets his seventh-floor State Department office and
his exalted title as “ambassador-at-large” and “senior adviser” to
Clinton (as prematurely announced by the WINEP memo disclosed by Chris
Nelson more than two weeks ago), he will be able to supervise, let
alone direct, Mitchell’s work. (It’s also inconceivable that Mitchell
would have accepted the position if Ross had been given some kind of
supervisory role.) Of course, it will be very interesting to see where
Mitchell’s headquarters will actually be located.

Third, I found in Obama’s remarks about Gaza and the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict evidence of markedly greater
even-handedness in describing the perspectives and needs of the two
parties, as also noted by the folks at NAF Task Force: “President
Obama,” it said, “found a language that managed to be both staunchly
supportive of Israel and its security while at the same time conveying
genuine empathy for the Palestinian predicament and Palestinian
dignity. President Obama achieved this by addressing the suffering of
Palestinian civilians as an issue in its own right rather than as a
derivative of Hamas behavior. In doing so he found a vocabulary and a
nuance that will likely be welcomed in the Middle East.

“On Gaza policy President Obama articulated the elements of a package
that will be necessary for a ceasefire to hold. Notably he included a
cessation of rocket fire, a prevention of weapon smuggling, a full IDF
withdrawal from Gaza, and an end to the closure on Gaza as part of a
comprehensive package. The last component, the blockade, had not been
prominently addressed by the last administration. While the broader
policy outline on the peace process did not change, the priority given
to this issue from day one (or day two to be more precise) and the
appointment of George Mitchell, suggest a renewed urgency and a
comparative thinking similar to the previous approach with Northern

What the task force was referring to was the following statement by
Obama: “Now we must extend a hand of opportunity to those who seek
peace. As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza’s border crossings should
be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate
monitoring regime, with the international and Palestinian Authority
participating.” (emphasis mine) Two things to note about this
formulation: 1) the opening of border crossings to normal commerce, as
well as humanitarian assistance, has long been a Hamas demand based on
what it had thought Israel had agreed to when the aborted cease-fire
was first forged last June; and 2) the “participa(tion)” of the
Palestinian Authority could be of a mainly symbolic nature, and one
that Hamas may well find acceptable, if it hasn’t already accepted it.
It falls far short of a (impossible-to-enforce) demand that the PA
reassert its authority within Gaza. A similar vagueness about the PA’s
role follows in the next paragraph on international assistance to Gaza
which, Obama said, “will be provided to and guided by the Palestinian
Authority.” (emphasis mine) That “guided by” falls far short of
“controlled by” or some other similar formulation and, if anything,
appears designed to encourage reconciliation between the PA and Hamas,
at least on rebuilding Gaza.

Now, it’s true that Obama is insisting that he will not treat Hamas as
a “genuine party to peace” unless and until it meets the Quartet’s
three conditions (from which France and others have begun to dissent,
in any case). Similarly, he’s calling for Arab states to support “the
Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister
Fayyad,” which most observers appear to agree has been gravely weakened
by the Gaza war. But, it seems to me, that these appeals, coupled with
the vagueness of the PA’s role in “participat(ing)” in a monitoring
regime and “guid(ing)” international aid, are kind of pro forma, and
that the administration recognizes that Hamas will remain the de facto
authority in Gaza and will have to be dealt with as such.

Here again is the NAF Task Force’s take: “The Northern Ireland process
which Senator Mitchell oversaw was of course predicated on broad
inclusivity of political actors and on the behavioral (i.e. ceasefire
non-violence) seat at the table, rather than ideological/political
conditions.” In the current context, that would mean that maintenance
of the cease-fire by Hamas (provided, of course, that the border
crossings are opened (with the PA’s participation) will be rewarded in
some way even if it doesn’t explicitly comply with the Quartet’s three

The Task Force then helpfully goes on to quote from a 2007 article
co-authored by Mitchell and Haass regarding lessons learned from the
Northern Ireland process:

“Confidence needs to be built before more ambitious steps can be taken.
Front-loading a negotiation with demanding conditions all but assures
that negotiations will not get under way, much less succeed.

“Parties should be allowed to hold onto their dreams. No one demanded
of Northern Ireland’s Catholics that they let go of their hope for a
united Ireland; no one required of local Protestants that they let go
of their insistence that they remain a part of the United Kingdom.

“They still have those goals, but they have agreed to pursue them
exclusively through peaceful and democratic means. That is what matters.

“Including in the political process those previously associated with
violent groups can actually help. Sometimes it’s hard to stop a war if
you don’t talk with those who are involved in it.”

If that indeed is the vision that Mitchell is authorized to take to the
Middle East as ambassador plenipotentiary, then there may be grounds
for some hope.

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