George Mitchell’s Mideast Failure


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Now that Mideast envoy George Mitchell has officially left the position, it is a fitting time for officials to learn the three key reasons he failed.

The first is that success in one context not only doesn’t guarantee success in another situation, but it often guarantees failure. Some thought Mitchell was the right choice to lead Israeli-Palestinian peace talks because of his experience negotiating the 1998 Good Friday agreement between the British and the Irish. But the truth is, Mitchell’s success in Ireland doomed him to failure in the Middle East.

That’s because Mitchell was bound to try and translate his work in Ireland to negotiations with the Israelis and Palestinians. Walter Russell Mead has a typically thoughtful and comprehensive rundown at The American Interest of why the peace processes are so unlike each other, but it basically boils down to four major differences: territorial maximalists in Ireland were few and far between compared to the Arab-Israeli conflict; there were effective governments and institutions on both sides—something the Palestinians have yet to produce; all indications are that anti-Israel violence will continue no matter what; and the international community was willing to play a constructive role in the Irish situation.

On that last point, it is worth quoting Mead at length: “The Irish weren’t secretly funding radical and rejectionist nationalist terror groups.  Iceland and Denmark weren’t funding Irish terrorists to advance their own agendas.  France wasn’t encouraging the IRA to fight on as a way of containing Britain.  Catholics around the world weren’t demonstrating and raising money for Irish annexation of Ulster; the Pope wasn’t issuing encyclicals affirming the religious duty of Catholics to fight to kick the heretics out.  (A few grizzled US-based Irish emigrants raised money for the IRA, but this is nothing compared to what groups like Hamas get from abroad.)  The European Union wasn’t condemning British war crimes in Ulster and passing resolutions in favor of Irish grievances.”

In September, the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl had already heard enough of Mitchell’s constant references to his past. Israelis and Palestinians, Diehl said, “appear to be doomed to listen to Mitchell draw parallels between their conflict and that of the Irish at every possible opportunity. ‘I have in the past referred to my experience in Northern Ireland,’ Mitchell said at a press conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday, following the latest round of talks between Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. No kidding. Mitchell has brought up his previous experience as broker in virtually every media briefing he has conducted since his appointment by President Obama in January 2009.”

The argument that Mitchell was trying to make—that he can get anyone to strike a deal because he once got two sides to strike a deal—was “alarmingly reductionist,” Diehl said.

And reductionist thinking is the opposite of what is needed in the Middle East. That’s because of the second lesson this and future administrations must learn from Mitchell’s failure: Negotiating this conflict, as President Obama said while thanking Mitchell for his efforts, is “the toughest job imaginable.” This is, unfortunately, the opposite of the attitude most negotiators bring to the table.

Diplomats believe the outline of a deal is clear: borders along the June 1967 lines with land swaps, the division of Jerusalem, and the return of a symbolic number of the descendents of those who may have once qualified for refugee status in 1948.

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  • StephenD

    A well thought out post Seth. Good job. I wonder after our attempt to be even handed with both sides when in fact Israel is closest to us in kind. Why shouldn't we be more on her side in any attempted negotiations? Trying to be "fair" may actually hurt the effort. We should let the world know, if you are like us we will support you…against those that are not like us. This is a pretty simple concept that the Islamic world recognizes and practices and no one even questions it.

    • beezeebeez

      Jerusalem must NEVER be divided! NEVER AGAIN!

  • John Richard

    Mitchell was a total clown investigating ML Baseball steroid use. It dragged out needlessly for years and the ownership and management escaped without even a slap on the wrist when they were absolute cohorts in supporting steroids when it benifited their team. I absolutely knew when he was cherry picked for his latest failure, that it was all politics for the Donkey Party and nothing righteous whatsoever would result.

  • clewgyber

    Mr. Mandel has fallen into a sadly familiar trap: talking about "the peace process". There is no such thing, and never has been. Anyone who uses the phrase is either a liar or a fool; perhaps both. To speak of a "peace process" in these circumstances is to speak of unicorns and other fantasies. There is no such thing. What DOES in fact, exist, is a war process, where Arabs take any advantage, any way they can see how, to kill Jews, damage them, threaten them, with the goal of eventually destroying Israel and killing all Jews. Killing Jews is the ONLY thing they are interested in, and they have proved this over and over again. Their desire for " a state" does not mean they want to govern themselves; it means they want territory to use as a launching platform for attacks on Jews. This is a cultural and religious imperative for them: the Koran and their traditions call for nothing less. Their burning shame at being left behind, while the world makes progress, while, even more horrific, the infernal Jews are successful, THIS they cannot abide. Only the murder of every Jew can alleviate their shame.
    The only good that has come from recent events, is that we are starting to get a little clarity on the issue. You don't negotiate with someone who says you have no right to exist. You don't make deals with non-existent people. Unless, like an Arab, you are duplicitous, seek advantage, and will sign anything that might get you closer to your goal: genocide.

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