Politics & Policy

The Middle East Is Not Ireland

Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East doesn’t understand the problem.

The 700 days are almost up.

On Jan. 22, 2009, his second full day in office, President Obama signed orders to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and announced former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. These two moves have been about equally successful.

In May 2010, Senator Mitchell explained that a year of frustration and failure had not daunted him. He told a reporter, “You can’t take the first ‘no.’ I had 700 days of ‘no’ in Northern Ireland, and one ‘yes.’” By my calculation, on Christmas Day, the 700 days will be up, and perhaps Mitchell will acknowledge that it’s time for a change.

Even reporters long ago became tired of Mitchell’s Northern Ireland analogies, for that situation is as similar to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it is to, say, Sri Lanka. Sure, there are parties, there are mediators, there are negotiating rules such as “don’t lie” and “keep your word” and “prevent outside spoilers from ruining everything.” But at bottom, the situations are different. By the mid-1990s, IRA and Unionist leaders were ready for a deal, but some mediator needed to bring these parties — strangers and enemies to each other — together. By contrast, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators know each other well and have met scores of times since the Oslo talks began 20 years ago. They’ve attended each other’s family weddings and birthdays and anniversaries, and any American who meets them sees immediately their easy camaraderie. They don’t need us to bring them together, for the problem isn’t getting talks started. It is that their views of how to solve the conflict are different, and the most one side believes it can offer is less than the least the other thinks it can accept.

One of the lessons Mitchell should have learned is that when two parties have negotiated and are basically ready to go at it again, preconditions are poison. They are likely to prevent even a start to negotiations. Yet the very first thing he did in the Middle East was to impose the precondition that all Israeli construction, in Jerusalem as well as in West Bank settlements, be frozen. This precondition had never been raised before — not by Egypt or Jordan, and not by the Palestinians — and it was immediately obvious that Netanyahu would reject it. And that he did. But by raising it, Mitchell made it impossible for Abbas and his team to get to the table: How could they let Mitchell be more Palestinian than the Palestinians? How could they compromise on construction when the Americans were being adamant?

As we approach the second 700 days, it is fair to ask the president for a rethink of this failing approach. In fact, there are numerous press reports today stating that the whole “freeze first” approach has finally been abandoned by the White House. The administration has admitted that it cannot get a permanent freeze, and that a temporary freeze (90 more days had been sought, a totally arbitrary number) would not produce much progress, anyway. Now what? They appear to have no idea. Relations with Jerusalem are frayed, and Abbas has been left out on a limb. Time for something new, fellas.

And what would better symbolize a fresh start than a fresh face? In trying to get something going in the Middle East, the president can’t, after all, fire himself or Vice President Biden, and it looks as if he’s got Hillary Clinton for all 1,461 days of his term. But Mitchell, who is after all 77, might be thanked and retired, or perhaps redirected. Maybe he could try Cyprus next. It’s true, they’ve had 17,087 “days of no” there since the U.N. force was sent in 1964, but who’s counting?

— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush Administration.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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