New U.S. Middle East Envoy Wins Approval but Little Confidence for His Mission


America’s new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is back from his first trip to the region and will likely return there later this month.   He met with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority and visited Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.  His week-long mission was billed as a “listening tour,” but was also intended to reinforce the new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

A British Perspective

British journalist Ian Williams says there is renewed hope for peace in the Middle East, partly because of George Mitchell’s prior success in negotiating a peace treaty for Northern Ireland.  Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Williams notes that, when Ambassador Mitchell was previously involved in the Middle East, “he did play the part of a even-handed broker in assessing the conditions in the West Bank, which is reassuring for the Arab side, even though some people on the Israeli side seem to find that a lot less reassuring.”

According to Ian Williams, the difference that the new Middle East envoy makes depends largely on “whether he has the full faith and credit of the Obama administration.”  Williams observes that Ambassador Mitchell is working under very difficult conditions.  “The Gaza incursion has probably reinforced Hamas’ hand.”  Furthermore, it has “added to the likelihood of Benjamin Netanyahu being elected [Israeli prime minister] because he benefits from an upsurge of militarism in Israel.”   Williams notes that the former Prime Minister refuses to accept the possibility of a Palestinian state, and he has said he will continue expanding West Bank settlements.  According to Williams, if Mr. Netanyahu is elected, the real test is going to be whether Washington is “prepared to allow him to rip up the U.S. plan with impunity” and whether President Barack Obama is “prepared to carry on giving diplomatic, military, and economic support to a government that defies him.”

An Israeli Perspective

However, polls published on February 6th in Israeli newspapers suggest the parliamentary race between Israel’s two largest parties – Likud and Kadima – is getting closer, while support for hard-line parties on the right - especially Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home) - is growing.  Some regional analysts are predicting that it might be easier for Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party to build a coalition than it would for Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who currently heads the center-right Kadima Party.  And that, of course, could alter the direction of peace talks with the Palestinians.According to Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward, Israelis were actually stunned by the speed with which the Obama administration moved.  He says “no one expected Obama to make his first phone calls in the Oval Office to Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert.”  Furthermore, “no one expected a Middle East envoy to be announced in the first three days in office and for this envoy to leave for the region within a week.”

Nevertheless, Nathan Guttman says expectations for the success of the new U.S. envoy’s mission are not very high – either in Israel or in Washington.  He says this is because Palestinian leadership is divided between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and because Israel is holding elections Feb. 10th that might result in a right-wing government.   However, Guttman says, “there is still a lot that [Ambassador] Mitchell can do – first, to help the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and to make sure that the new agreement about stopping arms smuggling actually works.”  And he can set out “guidelines for both sides” regarding Israeli settlements and security issues.  In fact, he can do a lot without reaching a final status agreement, which, in Guttman’s words, “now seems to be very far away.”

An Arab Perspective

Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent with the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBCTV), predicts the Obama administration will conduct the type of shuttle diplomacy not seen in the Middle East since the days of Henry Kissinger.  She notes that the priorities have already been outlined by Ambassador Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – consolidating a shaky cease-fire and concentrating on humanitarian aid to people in Gaza because “they cannot start a peace process as long as the situation on the ground is very fragile.”
Bilbassy also suggests that the prospect of a Likud government in Israel, led by former Prime Minister Netanyahu, could have a silver lining.  She says that some of her Israeli sources have told her that “Netanyahu does not want to be seen as the spoiler of the peace process and alienate a president [Obama] who is very popular in the world now, especially in the Muslim and Arab worlds.”  According to Bilbassy, Mr. Netanyahu might have to choose between prolonging the peace process, “as he did before,” – or negotiating.  She notes that the history of Israeli prime ministers shows that “you make peace with the right-wing governments in Israel and not the left wing.”  Bilbassy calls the current situation “very dynamic.”  In fact, the situation on the ground is the “gravest it has ever been” while the commitment of the U.S. government to peace in the Middle East appears “greater than it has ever been.”

Obstacles on Both Sides

Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman warns that – among some Israelis and some Palestinians – the pursuit of a peace agreement is not a priority.  “There are parties on both sides that wouldn’t like to see progress,” he explains.   But Guttman says there is a lot to be done without addressing some of the most difficult issues – “how the Palestinian Authority runs itself” and the “future of settlements on the West Bank.”

The one thing on which all sides agree is that the road to a lasting peace in the region will be both long and difficult to negotiate.

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