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U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell

Mitchell Advocates Cease-Fire on Middle East Trip

January 30, 2009 11:32 AM
by Isabel Cowles
Middle East envoy George Mitchell is traveling in the region this week to stress the Obama administration’s commitment to Israeli and Palestinian peace.

Mitchell Goes on “Listening Tour” in the Middle East

Former senator and current special Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell visited Jerusalem Wednesday for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mitchell emphasized the need for a cease-fire, urging an end to weapons smuggling by Gaza militants and the reopening of borders currently blocked by Israel and Egypt.

Meanwhile, the last few days have marked continued aggression and retaliation between Israel and Gaza militants, despite Mitchell’s diplomatic presence.

Mitchell's appointments include meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. He has no plans to meet directly with Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. For its part, Hamas has said that it would consider a yearlong cease-fire in exchange for an Israeli-Egyptian agreement to open the Gaza border.

One of Mitchell’s most sensitive meetings will take place on today with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently the chairman of Israel’s center-right Likud Party and a candidate for the Feb. 10 election.

Netanyahu is known for his “hawkish approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking,” according to The Washington Times, and his style may conflict with the strategy of the new U.S. administration. However, aides to Mr. Netanyahu maintain that he intends to keep the U.S.-Israeli relationship on a smooth footing and cite his good personal relationship with President Obama, established during Obama’s tenure in the Senate.

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Key Player: George Mitchell, lawyer, senator, whistle-blower and diplomat

Mitchell himself has Middle Eastern roots; his mother was a Lebanese immigrant. After serving in the Army, Mitchell earned a law degree from Georgetown University and worked as a lawyer with the U.S. Justice Department in his home state of Maine.

In 1980, he was appointed U.S. Senator when Edmund Muskie left to become Secretary of State. Mitchell was elected Senate majority leader in 1988 with 81 percent of the vote. President Clinton offered him an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994, but Mitchell declined, preferring to continue his work on health care issues.

After leaving the Senate in 1995, Mitchell was appointed envoy to Northern Ireland, arranging the Good Friday agreement, which ended 800 years of conflict. In 2001, he used his diplomatic skills to examine the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, at which time he proposed that Israel should stop settlement activities, while Palestinian authorities cracked down on militant activity.

"He's got this incredible patience to sit there until the deal is done," Ross K. Baker, a political scientist and former congressional aide told the Los Angeles Times. Mitchell, he said, "deserves the iron trousers award."

Mitchell is perhaps best known by the public for his investigation of doping in baseball, sometimes called “The Mitchell Report.” In December 2007, he released a 409-page report identifying 86 professional baseball players who allegedly used performance-enhancing drugs. The investigation was a serious blow to the reputation of many Major League players.

Opinion and Analysis: Will Mitchell succeed in the Middle East?

Not everyone believes that Mitchell’s earlier attempts at brokering peace in the Middle East were successful. According to Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post, both the current context and proposals parallel the 2001 situation, when Mitchell’s erstwhile solutions were “a flop.”

“Formally endorsed by all sides, endlessly discussed for more than a year, it was eventually folded into Bush’s ‘road map’ scheme of 2002—which, in turn, also went nowhere,” Diehl says of Mitchell’s 2001 proposals.

Internationally, however, Mitchell is seen as a diplomatic champion. Editors at the Irish newspaper Belfast Telegraph laud Mitchell as, “one of the heroes of the Northern Ireland peace process.” Although the publication admits that the Middle East situation differs from the conflict in Ireland, and recognizes that there is no guarantee of success, it asserts, “if there is anyone in the world who can make a difference, [George Mitchell] is the most likely statesman to do so.”

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