Three lessons to learn from a fiasco.
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.
All that is required then, in that scenario, is to get and keep the two sides talking. Elliot Abrams, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post after the Bush administration left office, effectively rebutted this argument.
“But it seemed to me that the opposite view was right: that if everybody knows what a deal has to look like, and year after year and decade after decade, it is not possible to reach it, isn't it obvious that it's because neither side wants that deal?” Abrams said. “Now, the reasons for not wanting it can vary, and they can also change over time, but it does seem to me that if everybody knows what the options are, and the most Israel can offer is less than the least the Palestinians can accept, the solution is not close at hand.”
Abrams was right. It’s not that those parameters aren’t reasonable—they are, which is what makes them so consistently alluring to negotiators. It’s that Israeli leaders have regularly made that offer to the Palestinians, who have never shown any indication that they will accept them. Which is why increased pressure on Israel is silly and counterproductive—the third lesson of the Mitchell debacle.
There are few constants in the Arab-Israeli conflict that can help a negotiator plan a strategy. Foremost among them is what Hillary Clinton said in an interview with the New Yorker in 2007: "You do not get people into a process or to the table to make any kind of tough decisions, including compromises, unless the other side knows that your commitment to Israel is unshakable.”
There are two noteworthy parts to that quote that make it a concise expression of one of the basic rules of the Middle East. The obvious one is the unshakable commitment to Israel. That is the first requirement for productive negotiations—a lesson the Obama administration should be learning from all this. The tangible sacrifices in any deal are being made by Israel—often at a serious risk to the security of the Jewish state. Those sacrifices will not be made in isolation.
But also remarkable is the phrase “the other side”—which Clinton uses here to refer to the Palestinians. The special relationship between Israel and the U.S. was not an accident. It developed because the two countries have shared values and shared strategic goals. The same cannot be said of Arafat’s PLO, Abbas’s PA, or Hamas—the progression of Palestinian power has been consistent on this score.
The concept of an “even-handed” approach by the U.S. defies common sense, and will only reinforce intransigence on the Palestinian side, as it has thus far into the Obama administration’s failed attempts at peacemaking; not only has the PA refused to participate in direct negotiations with Israel, but Palestinian leaders are threatening unilateral declaration of a state—an abrogation of previous agreements and two decades of peacemaking efforts in the region.
Politico called Mitchell’s departure a “low point” in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But if American policymakers learn these three lessons, it will at least begin moving back in the right direction.
Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.