Mideast Envoy To Meet Israeli, Palestinian Leaders

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shakes hands with George Mitchell. i i

In this handout image provided by the Government Press Office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (right) shakes hands with George Mitchell, U.S. envoy to the Middle East, during their Jan. 28 meeting in Jerusalem. Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shakes hands with George Mitchell.

In this handout image provided by the Government Press Office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (right) shakes hands with George Mitchell, U.S. envoy to the Middle East, during their Jan. 28 meeting in Jerusalem.

Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images

Newly appointed Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel on Wednesday. His assignment from President Obama is to listen to both Israelis and Palestinians, while Gaza teeters on the edge of renewed fighting.

The assignment is daunting because the fractures between and within the two societies are deeper than ever.

Mitchell is no stranger to the region. The former senator headed a fact-finding committee on Mideast violence in 2001. His report called on Israel to freeze settlements and the Palestinians to stop terrorist attacks. Eight years later, each side accuses the other of failing to fulfill their pledges.

Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University, welcomes an invigorated U.S. diplomatic effort. Ezrahi says a lack of attention has allowed extremists on both sides to flourish at the expense of moderates.

"What we have here is the Hamas movement on the one hand, totally uncompromising; on the other hand, we have the settlers ... led by a Messianic religious movement," he says. "They are really trying to impose on the region a completely different concept of order and statehood of the kind that cannot actually allow this place to be stabilized."

Approval In West Bank

Ezrahi thinks Mitchell is the right man to deal with the problem. His appointment also gets the approval of many Palestinians in the West Bank.

Ghassan Khatib, an independent Palestinian analyst at Birzeit University in Ramallah, says things deteriorated in the region mainly because of the absence of American and international diplomacy.

Mitchell will find the moderate-led Palestinian government in the West Bank much weakened — Khatib blames Israel for undercutting the Palestinian Authority by not responding to its efforts to improve security. Instead, he says, Israel has continued to humiliate Palestinians on the West Bank by expanding settlements and checkpoints, making life more and more difficult.

"The PA was weakened intentionally as a result of the failure of the peace process, which the PA has gambled on," Khatib says.

Israeli Right Wing Takes Different View

But Mitchell's appointment has not been welcomed by one key group: Israel's right wing. And with elections in a couple of weeks, it looks like hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu soon could be the country's new prime minister.

Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University, says Mitchell got it all wrong in 2001. He says most Palestinians don't accept Israel's right to exist, whatever they say on paper. He refuses to accept the argument that by continuing the settlements or the blockade on Gaza, Israel bears responsibility for the growth of Hamas and the weakening of Palestinian moderates.

"There is no Israeli presence and there has not been an Israeli presence in Gaza since August of 2005. That certainly didn't decrease the level of violence, hatred, incitement. On the contrary, it became much worse," Steinberg says. "So those types of connections — like settlements lead to conflict and end of settlements will lead to peace — that was one of Mitchell's fundamental principles, and there is no evidence for that."

Hardliners like Steinberg no longer talk about peace, but conflict management. He warns Mitchell against putting too much pressure on Israel.

No Ignoring Gaza

Mitchell's first visit is more a gesture of intent than the beginning of a far-reaching peace initiative. His first task will be cementing the fragile truce in Gaza. Israelis want to know what concrete steps Egypt will take to stop Hamas from smuggling weapons. Palestinians, in turn, want an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza.

"The approach of ... the Bush administration was to focus on the West Bank and just ignore Gaza," says Michael Oren, an Israeli historian who is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University. If anything, "the recent crisis has proven to all sides ... that they can no longer ignore Gaza. It won't go away."

Oren says even if there were progress between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank, another explosion in Gaza could stop any peace process in its tracks.

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