Mitchell, Israel and “Even-handedness”

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

James Besser in Washington

Here’s a paradox for you: most leaders of major American Jewish groups believe there has to be a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but many are very nervous about the appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell as the Obama administration’s special envoy in the region (Read the Jewish Week story here).  Why?

Part of the answer is in the term “even-handedness,” which is seen as different from fair.

Mitchell is seen as evenhanded in the sense that he is likely to come into any negotiations with the view that both Israel and the Palestinians bear some responsibility for the ongoing stalemate, and that neither has entirely lived up to their obligations under prior agreements.  It mean he probably believes both will have to make some politically difficult concessions before the other side has satisfied all its demands.   It means he will likely use relatively neutral language in approaching the conflict and balance statements critical of one side with ones critical of the other.

While most Jewish leaders may agree with the premise that both Israel and the Palestinians have to make compromises,  there is widespread discomfort with  language and symbolism that seems to put a Palestinian leadership that has tolerated and sometimes encouraged terrorism on a plane with Israel’s elected leaders.

The idea of evenhandedness has taken on much more of a charge in recent decades because top U.S. negotiators have been seen as having a special connection to Israel.

Dennis Ross , a lead negotiator during Bush 1 and Clinton, is Jewish; he went directly from the State Department to a pro-Israel think tank.

Dan Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and a longtime peace processor,  is an Orthodox Jew with deep personal connections to the Jewish state.  The Jewish right reviled him, but centrist groups were comfortable that while he would be fair in negotiations, he wouldn’t be even-handed in his orientation.

Mitchell had a strongly pro-Israel record in the Senate (he even made the rounds of AIPAC fundraisers), but he isn’t Jewish, he doesn’t have kin living in Israel and, in fact, his heritage is part Lebanese.  In the minds of some Jewish leaders, he probably hearkens back to the days of Cyrus Vance and James Baker – mediators without any special ties to the Jewish state other than the general feeling that the U.S.-Israel alliance is important (but we have many alliances with nations we don’t see as close – Saudi Arabia, for example).

Mitchell isn’t disinterested; he’s not skewed to the Palestinians.  He has been a strong supporter of Israel over the years, and that’s not likely to change.

But it’s almost certain he will try to shift the balance of U.S. diplomacy in the direction of even-handedness – an effort to be more neutral in language, balanced in criticism and willing to press both sides despite a friendship with one whose value he has never denied.

There are other factors at work here, as well.

Mitchell succeeded in brokering a peace in Northern Ireland, another conflict once considered intractable, by finding ways to bring the IRA into the process. Will he try to do the same with Hamas, and thus violate what has become a virtual commandment  for pro-Israel leaderships – never talk to terrorists?  Will the result be a Palestinian unity government that Israel will then be pressed to accept as a negotiating partner?

That, after all, is what Mitchell accomplished in Northern Ireland.

Especially if Likud’s Bibi Netanyahu wins the February 10 elections in Israel, won’t a U.S. effort to draw Hamas into negotiations lead to a Washington-Jerusalem clash?

But without some way of breaching the Gaza-West Bank divide, Mitchell’s job will be just one of crisis management, not crisis resolution – which is not what the new Obama administration wants to do and not what  Mitchell’s record suggests he will do.

But the countervailing argument is this: if a U.S. mediator is seen as tilting toward the Palestinians, won’t that make it much harder to maintain  support for a peace deal in a nervous Israel? Pro-Israel leaders say that highly public support for Israel is critical for any mediator who wants to move the Jewish state on super-sensitive final status issues.

If he tilts too far in terms of language and symbols, they say, the Israeli public could get spooked, which would undermine the entire peacemaking enterprise.

But credibility is a two-way street, those on the left argue; wasn’t the Bush administration’s role as cheerleader-in-chief for Israel over the past years a core reason former President Bush’s lofty plans went nowhere, and a reason moderates like Mahmoud Abbas just got weaker and weaker?

That’s the minefield Mitchell is entering with his new job. It may make his IRA-Northern Ireland role look like a picnic.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.