Thoughts on George Mitchell Resignation

05/14/2011 06:43 am ET | Updated Jul 14, 2011
  • Steve Clemons Washington Editor at Large of The Atlantic and founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

I have thought for some time now that the Obama administration's experiment with George Mitchell had failed.

Special Envoy for the Middle East George Mitchell and his team made two key errors: they believed that the near term pluses of an ultimate deal between Palestinians and Israelis would outweigh the political benefits of intransigence by both respective governments -- and they felt that helping Palestinian moderates deliver resources to their people would help them achieve a legitimacy competitive against Hamas. They were wrong on both counts.

Mitchell's "too much too late" strategy of trying to prop up Mahmoud Abbas and to make him -- and moderates in general -- look like they were political winners and could deliver results to their people badly backfired. Mitchell engineered with both Abbas and Palestine Prime Minister Salam Fayyad the most pro-American, pro-Israel deal making government imaginable -- and yet Israel was able to shrug them off. Hamas sat on the sidelines of Mitchell's efforts, waiting for a knock on the door that never came, and watched Israel and Palestine peacemaking efforts collapse -- while Hamas' own legitimacy rose in the eyes of frustrated Palestinians.

One senior Defense official once said to me that Mitchell always talked in terms of forty year cycles -- and that this official wanted to know if we were still in year 1 of that cycle, or year 39. He said that when Mitchell plodded slowly along describing his strategy, this official wanted to "punch a pencil" through his own head.

Mitchell failed to inspire the Palestinians and Israelis to embrace their long term interests over short term political itches -- and he lost the faith and support of his colleagues inside the administration.

To some degree this was inevitable. Dennis Ross became the person in the administration that Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preferred to communicate with, circumventing entirely George Mitchell and his team. When Obama failed to insist that only Mitchell be the lead and allowed a bifurcated operation, Netanyahu has been able to play one side off the other.

Mitchell has had almost no contact with Netanyahu over the speech that the Israeli Prime Minister will soon be giving in Washington -- and the next big Obama speech on political change in the Middle East/North Africa region will have none of Mitchell's DNA in it.

It's regrettable that Mitchell failed, as he is an outstanding public servant who has served the country well in the past. I had high hopes for him when he came in -- and hoped he would soon understand that the Israel-Palestine divide was not like the Northern Ireland peace process because there was an urgency and global severity to the Israel-Palestine fault line that had a consequential weight geostrategically that Northern Ireland never did.

I admire Mitchell, but the administration -- if it is going to continue to give any focus to the Israel-Palestine issue -- needs to cease half-way efforts and needs to stop allowing Netanyahu to set the temperature and terms in the region.

Obama needs to lay out his own expectations of a political outcome and have the parties react to that -- not naively wait for them to come to terms with each other. They never will and their political institutions cannot bear the pressure of such an agreement. Stakeholders in the region must adopt the Obama parameters and become the seducers and enforcers of an ultimate deal.

That's what needs to happen. Many in the administration know it -- but the politicos in the Obama White House have been the most recalcitrant. It's a tough knot for them politically.

But until there is a deeper strategy, with broad stakeholder support in the region, and something that can withstand inevitable Congressional criticism -- the Israel-Palestine ulcer will continue to worsen and will eventually animate the frustrations of a new set of leaders throughout the Middle East.

Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons