Examining Mitchell As Possible Mideast Envoy
ROBERT SIEGEL: The person most commonly mentioned as the next Middle East Envoy is former Maine Senator George Mitchell. Mitchell was the Democratic leader in the Senate and before that a federal judge. Between his more noteworthy service mediating a peace agreement in Northern Ireland and later investigating steroid abuse in major league baseball, Mitchell put in a short stint of Mideast diplomacy. James Bennet, now editor of the Atlantic, was the New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief back in 2001 and 2002, and James Bennet, if there is such a thing as the Mitchell Plan, what was it?
M: There is, and not to be confused with the plan on steroid use in major league baseball. The Mitchell plan grew out of an international conference at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, held at the tail end of the Clinton administration and Mitchell was sent to the region as part of a very high-level group to assess the violence at the outset of what turned out to be the second intifada and to try to figure out a way to stop the violence and restart the Oslo Peace Process.
SIEGEL: Mitchell, I gathered, proposed a halt to settlement construction by Israel and a halt to violence by the Palestinians and like many other agreements didn't exactly bear fruit.
M: Yeah, these agreements are of course only as good as their implementation. The implementation hasn't been terribly impressive in recent years. It called for - those were the biggest bullet points that came out of the report and also called for a number of so-called confidence building measures. But what really happened is that none of the steps where really taken and there was a succession of envoys after Mitchell who created reports that were to get you back to the Mitchell report. First came George Tenet of the CIA who produced the Tenet plan to get back to the Mitchell report to get back to Oslo. Then, came General Zinni who produced the Zinni plan to get back to Tenet and so forth and then finally the diplomatic quartet that produced what's called the road map which has really become kind of the touchstone document that everybody now refers back to which was also supposed to get us back to Mitchell and thence on to Oslo but the parties have been stuck.
SIEGEL: Which do you think is more true if indeed George Mitchell is going to be the new Middle East Peace Envoy? Has the Obama administration in that case turned to somebody who's an old hand at this, turned to somebody who would be essentially new at it, or something in between?
M: It's something in between and it strikes me as very smart, depending on what, of course, the larger plan is and what the president's real intentions are here. I mean, George Mitchell is a guy who has not spent, as I understand it, a huge amount of time in the region, but he has spent some time there. There were two fact-finding missions that the Mitchell report grew out of. He's thought about this problem and he's not likely that he'd be snowed by either side.
SIEGEL: If indeed Dennis Ross, longtime Middle East peace negotiator doesn't get this portfolio but rather is assigned to deal with Iran, which is something else he's been reported or rumored. What does that say about the Obama administration?
M: It's a very bold and interesting combination if that is in fact what they have in mind because Dennis Ross would dispute this characterization. No doubt the Palestinians would view him largely as tilting a little more towards Israel and if he is sent to Iran to deal with the Iran Nuclear Program, I think that would be very reassuring to Israelis. George Mitchell is of Lebanese descent on his mother's side. That is actually going to be reassuring I think to Palestinians who have perceived a strong tilt in the Bush administration over the last few years toward Israel. Now, what you'll then have is two heavyweights who are essentially addressing one very big problem from different perspectives. I mean you cannot separate, I think, the Israeli Palestinian conflict from Iran's activities in the region. And so these two guys will then have to figure out a way to work together which is a whole - another set of problems that the Obama administration will have to deal with but assuming that they can, it could be a very effective combination.
SIEGEL: And again the choice of George Mitchell to be Middle East envoy is not officially confirmed at this point, but that's what we've been talking about with James Bennet, editor of the Atlantic. Thank you very much for talking with us.
M: Thank you.
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