Huffpost WorldPost
MJ Rosenberg Headshot

At Last, an Honest Broker

Posted: Updated:

Hopefully, George Mitchell's tenure as special envoy to the Middle East will turn out to be a case of what Yogi Berra would call, "deja vu all over again." Specifically, we could use a repeat of May 9, 2007, which was the highlight of Mitchell's career thus far.

That was the day that the conflict over Northern Ireland, which began in the twelfth century (and in which 3,500 people had been killed since 1966) ended. It was the day when Protestant leader Reverend Ian Paisley joined former senior IRA commander Martin McGuiness in a power-sharing Catholic-Protestant unity government.

It was a day, in the words of the BBC, "of such improbability that it sets a new benchmark against which the future will judge unlikely events still to come"--like an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For a time it appeared that Israelis and Palestinians would end their conflict before Irish Catholics and Protestants. It was in 1993 that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasir Arafat signed the Oslo Agreement on the White House lawn.

But then Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli terrorist and, just as the killer intended, Oslo died shortly after its Israeli sponsor. After Rabin's murder, neither Israelis nor Palestinians fully observed the agreement (although it still succeeded in dramatically reducing the violence).

The Irish equivalent of Oslo was the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which created the framework for peace by establishing a power-sharing arrangement between Protestants and Catholics. The ancient enemies would serve side-by-side in the same government, settling disputes through politics not violence.

Like Oslo, the Good Friday Agreement hit snag after snag, with both sides caught violating its terms. Just two months after it was signed, 29 people were killed and 200 injured in an attack by an IRA splinter group in the city of Omagh--an action designed to scuttle the peace process. But none of the major players on either side were assassinated, as Rabin was, and each setback was followed by intensive efforts to resuscitate the agreement.

This last point marks a striking difference with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Protestants and Catholics never stopped negotiating following an act of violence. Israelis and Palestinians invariably use acts of violence as a pretext to stop negotiating; never seeming to grasp--or not caring--that by doing so they were giving the terrorists on both sides a veto on the peace process.

Another difference worth noting is that while Oslo was signed by moderates in the Israeli and Palestinian camps, the Irish peacemakers were hard-liners known for their intense animosity toward the other side.

In an article about successful mediation that he wrote with Richard Haass in 2007, Mitchell said: "Including in the political process those previously associated with violent groups can actually help. Sometimes it's hard to stop a war if you don't talk with those who are involved in it. To be sure, their participation will likely slow things down and, for a time, block progress. But their endorsement can give the process and its outcome far greater legitimacy and support. Better they become participants than act as spoilers."

That is how it worked in Northern Ireland. Both sides were represented by hardliners; fanatics in fact.

Protestant Paisley had famously said, "If an IRA man comes to a Protestant home and my men are there they will kill that IRA man. Yes sir." Catholic McGuiness once said, "I am prepared to go to jail. I would rather die than disrupt or destroy my code of honor to the IRA."

The gaps that divided Irish Catholics and Protestants were every bit as wide as those dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Like Israelis and Palestinians, the two sides were fighting over one piece of land (although the Northern Irish could not simply divide it between them as Israelis and Palestinians can). The religious animosity was as intense as that between Jews and Muslims. And the 800-year old Irish conflict was some 700 years more ancient than the 100-year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So why did the Good Friday Agreement succeed while Oslo collapsed?

Perhaps the most significant reason was the perseverance of one critical outsider: George Mitchell. Mitchell became involved when British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had invested heavily in the success of the Irish negotiations, asked President Bill Clinton for help in bridging differences between the two sides.

Blair believed that the American president--unlike a British prime minister--could be the honest broker both sides would trust. Clinton agreed and appointed former Senate Majority Leader Mitchell as his special envoy. He expressed full confidence in him and sent word not only that Mitchell would speak for him but that, when called upon by Mitchell, he would himself use his powerful persuasive abilities to push for an agreement.

With Clinton's full backing, Mitchell had the authority he needed to get the job done. Mitchell was as tough as he was even-handed (he was neither in the Catholic or Protestant camp, just as he is neither in the Palestinian or Israeli camps). And he was indefatigable, involving himself whenever he was needed, whatever the issue.

In that same article about successful mediation, he stated that "peace never just happens; it is made, issue by issue, point by point." But, he warned, "in order to get negotiations launched, preconditions ought to be kept to an absolute minimum. . . . Confidence needs to be built before more ambitious steps can be taken. Front-loading a negotiation with demanding conditions all but assures that negotiations will not get under way, much less succeed."

Mitchell also wrote that he believed that there should be a price paid by whichever side dodges commitments it has made to the other side or to the mediator (i.e., the United States).

"Sanctions should be introduced when there is backsliding. In the case of Northern Ireland, it meant public criticism, stopping diplomatic contacts, the suspension of local institutions. There must be a clear price to be paid for unacceptable actions," he wrote.

These specific sanctions are not fully applicable to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the point remains. For the last eight years, Israelis and Palestinians have made commitments that neither has lived up to. Although the Bush administration had no hesitation pointing to Palestinian non-compliance, it almost never called on Israel to live up to its commitments (think of the oft-promised settlements freeze).

Moreover, U.S. envoys to the region--including Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice--never had full presidential backing for their efforts and were repeatedly undermined by Elliot Abrams and other White House neoconservatives.

As a result, the United States lost its credibility as an honest broker and, as George W. Bush's term ended, the conflict was infinitely farther from resolution than it was when Bill Clinton left the White House.

That is about to change. Mitchell's appointment is the proof.

President Obama would not have appointed George Mitchell unless he intended to push the process to a successful conclusion. Nor would he have made the appointment in the presence of the vice president, secretary of state, and the assembled staff of the State Department.

As for Mitchell, it is safe to assume that he would not have taken the job if he did not know that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would fully back his efforts, without regard to the supposed political constraints on disinterested mediation. After all, Mitchell is going down in history as the man who brought peace to Ireland. It is inconceivable that he would choose to follow that success with failure in the Middle East.

As for Barack Obama, he promised to begin the serious pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement during his first year in office. He's well ahead of schedule. He appointed and tasked George Mitchell as special envoy on his second full day in office.

Obama wasn't exaggerating. He is indeed "fired up, ready to go." Also ready to go, and now almost sure to go, is the ugly, pointless, and horrifically bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the words of the song Michelle and Barack Obama danced to at ten inaugural balls on Tuesday night: "At Last."

MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.