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Daoud Kuttab Headshot

When Obama Blinked First, Mitchell's Mission Was Doomed

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The appointment of George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace for the newly-sworn-in U.S. president was a source of much hope in the Middle East. Senior U.S. officials toured the region soon thereafter to make sure people understood the importance of the appointment and its timing.

Mitchell took the appointment seriously and did what no other envoy before him had done. He created a team of supporters and opened an office in the U.S. Mission in Jerusalem in order to make sure that neither side made claims in closed rooms that were not enacted on the ground.
As an envoy, Mitchell was aware of the difficulty of the mission and the failures of so many other envoys before him. However, he did have faith in the fairness and determination of his boss, the newly elected President Barack Obama.

It now seems that his faith was misplaced.

While it is not clear what exactly lies behind Mitchell's resignation, it likely had to do with policy disagreements. The 77-year-old Mitchell says that when he accepted the job, he had promised to stay on for two years and that he has stayed longer than that. But for the past six months it has been clear in the region that Mitchell practically made the decision to quit the job once it was clear that his advice was no longer being heeded in the White House.

Mitchell's advice appears to have been rejected twice, and both times the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank seemed to have caused the break in trust between Mitchell and the White House.

The problem began in the summer of 2009 with the first snag in talks. Palestinians had carried out their side of the road map and had vastly improved security. Even Israeli army officials admitted it.

Next it was the turn of the Israelis to suspend settlement activities. The U.S.-Israeli tensions grew in the lead-up to a summit meeting. When President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met, the American president seemed to have blinked first. Instead of insisting on a settlement freeze he called for a settlement 'reduction.'

Obama's surrender happened shortly after the reappointment of pro-Israeli-envoy Dennis Ross as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton.

The Israelis did 'reduce' settlement activities for ten months. But differences over this self-imposed 'moratorium' -- which excluded Jerusalem as well as existing building plans -- delayed direct talks.

Mitchell tried to salvage the situation by getting the Israelis to agree on the western borders of the future Palestinian state -- but to no avail. All attempts to get the Israelis to extend the moratorium for as little as three months failed.

The U.S. insisted on a moratorium -- and even tried to bribe the Israelis with three billion dollars worth of fighter jets -- but Netanyahu, who had forced Obama to blink first, simply said no.

Palestinians eyeing statehood by the fall of 2011 naturally refused to give in on the settlement issue. If America couldn't get the Israelis to stop building the settlements in Palestinian areas, it became clear that the Mitchell process was doomed.

Israelis and Palestinians are not equal partners. The lack of symmetry between them can't be rectified so long as the Israeli army rules over Palestinians and denies them freedom.

Neither George Mitchell, nor Dennis Ross, nor any peace envoy, can bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians without Washington's strong role in rectifying this imbalance.

Daoud Kuttab a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He is also the founder of AmmanNet, the Arab world's first internet radio station.

First ran as a special to CNN.