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The newly appointed Middle East Envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel today. His orders from President Obama are 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. NPR's Anne Garrels has more from Jerusalem.
ANNE GARRELS: George Mitchell is no stranger to the region. The former senator headed a fact-finding committee on Mid-East 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 welcomes an invigorated U.S. diplomatic effort. A political scientist at Hebrew University, Ezrahi says a lack of attention has allowed extremists on both sides to flourish at the expense of moderates.
Mr. YARON EZRAHI (Political Scientist, Hebrew University): What we have here is a Hamas movement, on the one hand, totally uncompromising. On the other hand, we have the settlers, it's lead by a messianic religious movement. 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.
GARRELS: Ezrahi thinks Mitchell is the right man to deal with this. His appointment also gets the approval of many Palestinians in the West Bank. Ghassan Khatib is an independent Palestinian analyst at Birzeit University in Ramallah.
Mr. GHASSAN KHATIB (Palestinian Analyst, Birzeit University): Things deteriorated mainly because of the absence of any American and international diplomacy.
GARRELS: Mitchell will find a moderate-lead 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 in the West Bank by expanding settlements and checkpoints, making life more and more difficult.
Mr. KHATIB: The PA was weakened intentionally as a result of the failure of the peace process, which the PA has gambled on.
GARRELS: George Mitchell's appointment had not been welcomed by one key group, Israel's right wing. And with elections in a couple of weeks, it looks like hard-liner Binyamin Netanyahu could soon 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 continuing the blockade on Gaza, Israel bears responsibility for the growth of Hamas and the weakening of Palestinian moderates.
Professor GERALD STEINBERG (Chairman, Political Science Department, Bar Ilan University): There is no Israel 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 and incitement. On the contrary, it became much worse. So those types of connections, like settlements lead to conflict, an end of settlements will lead to peace, there's no evidence for that.
GARRELS: Hard-liners like Steinberg no longer talk about peace, but conflict management. And he warns Mitchell against putting too much pressure on Israel.
Mitchell's first visit here 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's going to take to stop Hamas from smuggling weapons. Palestinians, in turn, want an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza. Michael Oren is an Israeli historian, who's currently a visiting scholar at Georgetown University.
Professor MICHAEL B. OREN (History, Georgetown University): The approach in the Bush administration was to focus on the West Bank and just ignore Gaza. And if anything that the recent crisis has proven to all sides, is that they can no longer ignore Gaza. It won't go away.
GARRELS: Oren says, even if there were to be progress between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank, another explosion in Gaza could stop any peace process in its tracks. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Jerusalem.