George Mitchell Tells Jewish Groups: Middle East Conflict Dwarfs Ireland

03/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

During a conference call with Jewish officials and organizations on Thursday, Middle East envoy George Mitchell said that forging peace between the Israelis and Palestinians would be a much tougher diplomatic task that anything he's previously encountered, including his renowned work on the Northern Ireland peace process.

"He made reference to the Good Friday agreement," recalled a representative of a Jewish organization who was on the call. "And he said, paraphrasing again: 'Look, I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't think I could succeed. Though there are few lessons you could take from Good Friday. This is much more difficult and complicated."

It was a moment that stood out in what attendees have described as an impressive, frank and informed one-hour discussion. Mitchell took questions from a variety of groups, but he also asked for their input. In addressing some of the thornier issues in the region, he showed the deft touch of a seasoned regional expert.

"I was real impressed by the conversation and I have heard from Mitchell in the past," said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, who was on the call. "He was like a tour de force, he seemed totally comfortable, he knew the players like a politician who had served on the foreign relations committee for twenty years."

The conversation ventured to the specific as well. Mitchell, "didn't openly address negotiating with Hamas," said the Jewish organization representative. "They made it clear that having a united front in a Palestinian partner, one who could speak for most Palestinians, was important. But, of course, the only way Hamas gets in is if it recognizes the requirements of the quartet (stop violence, recognize the state of Israel, accept previous agreements the Palestinian Authority agreed to, etc.)"

Also of note: Mitchell categorically dismissed reports that the U.S. government was meddling in Israel's election, as the Orthodox Union's Nathan Diament told Politico's Ben Smith. He acknowledged the importance of economic progress in the West Bank but said a political complement was needed. He did not speculate as to when the administration would put out a proposal for Middle East peace, but he said such a plan is being formulated.

Underscoring just how much the Middle East landscape has changed during the Bush years, he expressed shock at how Iran dominated.

"He said," relayed the source, "and I'm paraphrasing: 'I was struck by how different things are. Eight years ago when I was speaking to these players, no one mentioned Iran. This time almost the first sentence out of everyone's mouth was Iran.'"