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Was the peace process failure Mitchell’s fault?

Special Envoy George Mitchell resigned at a low point in the effort to achieve peace in the Middle East, but officials and experts argued that the failure cannot be laid solely at his feet. While President Barack Obama is set to give a major speech next Thursday setting forth U.S. policy in response to the ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Special Envoy George Mitchell resigned at a low point in the effort to achieve peace in the Middle East, but officials and experts argued that the failure cannot be laid solely at his feet.

While President Barack Obama is set to give a major speech next Thursday setting forth U.S. policy in response to the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world, he is not expected to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any depth. There was considerable debate within the administration about whether to link the two issues, but the president ultimately decided not to set forth a new peace process strategy. That decision was perhaps the final sign for Mitchell that his continued service would not be needed.

In fact, Mitchell's departure is the clearest signal that no new peace initiative from the administration is forthcoming.

Special Envoy George Mitchell resigned at a low point in the effort to achieve peace in the Middle East, but officials and experts argued that the failure cannot be laid solely at his feet.

While President Barack Obama is set to give a major speech next Thursday setting forth U.S. policy in response to the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world, he is not expected to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any depth. There was considerable debate within the administration about whether to link the two issues, but the president ultimately decided not to set forth a new peace process strategy. That decision was perhaps the final sign for Mitchell that his continued service would not be needed.

In fact, Mitchell’s departure is the clearest signal that no new peace initiative from the administration is forthcoming.

"There’s nothing they can do right now," said former negotiator Aaron David Miller. He added that Mitchell isn’t responsible for the current state of the peace process, because the direction of the administration’s Middle East policy was always controlled by the White House.

"This was not a George Mitchell problem, this was 80 percent the reality that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were willing to tough issues and 20 percent the Obama administration, which inflated expectations, wrongfully elevated the settlement issue, and now finds itself with no negotiations no peace process and no strategy," he said.

"To blame Mitchell for an administration that never had an effective strategy is just wrong," said Miller.

In what could be a preview of how Obama will address the peace process next week, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon spoke about the issue Thursday evening at an event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"[N]o one should take comfort in the status quo," he said. "As we have learned in the Middle East, the status quo is never static. There are demographic and technological clocks that keep ticking. There is a new generation of leaders who will emerge in the region as a result of the changes that are now taking place."

The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, told The Cable in an interview that Mitchell did the best he could and remains well regarded, despite the lack of progress. The Palestinian government wants the Obama administration to stay engaged and the window for negotiations was not closed, he said.

"We understand this speech will not focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we’d like to see a continued commitment by the U.S. to reach a conclusion to the conflict," he said.

But while the administration and the Israeli government have been coordinating closely in recent weeks, U.S.-Palestinian relations have declined due to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas‘s plan to seek diplomatic recognition for a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September, and the announcement that the PA will form a unity government with the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.

Areikat said that the plan to seek recognition at the United Nations was not final, and could be scuttled if negotiations resume. He also said that the unity government would not change its policies regarding the peace process, at least until elections, which are currently scheduled for May 2012.

"The PLO will continue to be in charge of negotiations and political issues and even the future government that will be formed as a caretaker transition government will to continue to implement the policies of the president and will not undertake any new policies," he said.

Inside the administration, Mitchell’s role had lessened ever since the administration announced it was abandoning the strategy of focusing on Israeli settlement moratorium extensions in November 2010.

"George’s operation had withered and been unattended since then and he really hasn’t had a mandate," said Steve Clemons, foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation, who agreed that the Fatah-Hamas deal does render the current process moot.

"They don’t have a plan to deal with the unity government. The Hamas deal has caught them unaware so the strategy they put in place won’t work," said Clemons.

Mitchell now becomes the latest special envoy, whose ranks include the late Richard Holbrooke, who saw his role overshadowed by more senior officials in the White House.

"They created an empire of envoys," said Miller. "This whole process was managed by the White House and the NSC with the president being the arbiter of what would and would not be."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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