U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell is beginning his first mission to the region in his new post after a White House send-off from President Barack Obama. The President said Mitchell seeks genuine progress to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not just photo sessions.
President Obama used the late-afternoon White House meeting with Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to stress his commitment to reinvigorating the regional Mideast peace process, which has ground to a halt after the conflict in the Gaza Strip.
Mitchell, the former Senate Majority Leader and key figure in the 1990s Northern Ireland peace accords, begins his initial mission in Egypt Tuesday. He goes on to Jerusalem and Ramallah on the West Bank later in the week for two days of meetings with leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Mr. Obama said Mitchell will be "fully empowered" by to speak for his administration.
But he said Mitchell's first official trip, which will also include stops in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, will be primarily to listen to leaders in the region and report back on how the Gaza cease-fire can be solidified and a pathway to a two-state Middle East peace reopened.
"The charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress," said President Obama. "And when I say progress, not just photo ops but progress that is concretely felt by people on the ground, so that people feel more secure in their lives - so that they feel that the hopes and dreams and aspirations of their children can be met. That is going to be our task. It is not something that we are going to be able to do overnight. But I am absolutely confident that if the United States is engaged in a consistent way and an early way, that we can make genuine progress."
State Department officials, who say Mitchell will end the mission with consultations in Paris and London do not rule out additional stops. But they say he had no plans to visit Gaza or to talk to officials of the radical Islamic group Hamas, which controls the coastal strip and refuses to accept Israel's right to exist.
A spokesman here said that in addition to shoring up the Gaza cease-fire, Mitchell will seek an effective anti-smuggling and interdiction regime to prevent the rearming of Hamas, while reopening Gaza crossing points and attending to humanitarian needs there.
The 75-year-old former Senator wrote a highly-regarded report on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in 2001 that criticized policies of both sides, and formed the basis of the "road map" to a two-state solution issued by the international Middle East "Quartet" two years later.
Former President Bush shunned the use of special envoys in favor of direct diplomacy by the Secretary of State.
But envoys will apparently be a major diplomatic tool for the Obama administration. It has also named former U.S. Balkans peace envoy Richard Holbrooke to address the Afghan conflict and related border violence in Pakistan, and on Monday announced that former Clinton administration official Todd Stern will serve as a special envoy on climate change.