Tuesday, January 27th, 2009
James Besser in Washington
Former Sen. George Mitchell is getting a running start; only days after his appointment as special envoy to the Middle East, he is heading to the region for an eight-day getting-to-know-you session with leaders of several countries and with the men and woman vying to become Israel’s next leader after next month’s elections.
At a White House send-off photo op on Monday, President Obama tried to give Mitchell a full charge of presidential authority, saying the envoy “is going to be fully empowered by me and fully empowered by Secretary Clinton, so when he speaks, he will be speaking for us.” He also said that “the cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests. It’s important to me personally. It is important to Arabs and Jews. It is important to Christians, and Muslims, and Jews all around the world.”
He went further in an interview with al Arabiya, saying that he believes “the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people.”
Does that mean Mitchell is likely to come home with a sweeping new peace plan in his briefcase, along with T-shirts for his grandkids? Obama seemed to suggest otherwise.
“What I told (Mitchell) is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues — and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved,” Obama said. “So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.”
Washington insiders say the goal of this first trip is to listen to all parties, work on reinforcing the fragile Gaza cease fire – and begin what could be a long, arduous effort to find new openings to advance a peace process that doesn’t look much like it did eight years ago.
Most major Jewish leaders continue to insist that the situation isn’t “ripe” for sweeping new initiatives; pro-peace process groups say it’ll never be ripe without bold U.S. action to topple a dangerous status quo.
The Obama administration’s approach is likely to be somewhere in the middle, with the patient, pragmatic Mitchell probing for openings, searching for new formulas but avoiding high-stakes gambles in a region where the odds always look bad.
In a case of silence speaking volumes, the official Jewish community has remained conspicuously silent about last week’s Mitchell appointment.
Sure, an assortment of pro-peace process groups hailed the appointment of Mitchell, the man credited with the almost miraculous agreement that ended the sectarian fighting in Northern Ireland. That includes J Street, the Israel Policy Forum, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and Americans for Peace Now.
But what about the big Jewish and pro-Israel groups? How do you describe the sound of silence?
Not a single major pro-Israel group has issued a statement commenting on Mitchell’s appointment. Only one major leader – ADL’s Abe Foxman – has publicly expressed reservations (read his comments here) , but several prominent leaders this week privately said Foxman’s concern that Mitchell would be too even-handed and too eager to move forward on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations despite an unfavorable climate is widespread in leadership circles.
“It’s conspicuous, it’s sort of embarrassing,” said an official with one major Jewish group – which has itself not commented. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, and I’d say Abe Foxman’s views are not out of the mainstream.”
Not surprisingly, the Zionist Organization of America fired some rhetorical weapons of mass destruction at Mitchell, claiming that he believes “both sides are equally at fault” in the conflict and gives “a moral and factual equivalence between the Palestinian Arabs and the Israelis actions and goals. He refuses to distinguish between the aggressor and the victim, between right and wrong.”