JERUSALEM The new U.S. president was as good as his word. Within 48 hours
of taking the helm, Barack Obama declared it "will be the policy of my
administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel
and the Palestinians as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors."
With the follow-up announcement that his special envoy, former senator George
Mitchell, would be traveling right away to the region, the sabbatical truce
gave Israelis a chance to digest the implications of this immediate U.S. reengagement.
Sunday morning's headlines sounded an alarm: the largest circulation paper,
Yediot Achronot, put it bluntly, "The Pressure Begins," while
the other major Tel Aviv tabloid, Ma'ariv, pronounced, "Mitchell
Arriving to Exert Pressure."
Mitchell, who led a fact-finding mission early during the Palestinian Intifadah
uprising, arrives Wednesday for talks with the spectrum of Israeli leaders
as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other regional leaders.
Some right-wing Israeli politicians charge that the visit constitutes unwarranted
interference in the upcoming Feb. 10 general election. But, if the intention
of the U.S. envoy was again "fact-finding" to sound out the positions
of the leading candidates he could be in for a rude surprise.
The election campaign has been belatedly gathering steam after being put on
a backburner during Israel's three-week offensive against Hamas in Gaza. Just
16 days ahead of the elections, it's actually the "Obama effect"
that is being exploited by the front-running candidates. Foreign Minister Tzipi
Livni, head of the center-right Kadima, reportedly said the election of right-wing
Benjamin Netanyahu would "cause a rift" with the U.S.; Netanyahu's
Likud retorted that Kadima is "desperate," and their leader was best
equipped to handle a challenge from the U.S.
"We're getting ahead of ourselves if we imagine this is already a U.S.
challenge," says Israel's foremost political analyst, Chemi Shalev. "The
Mitchell mission should not be viewed as a big deal by anyone worried this
heralds a major U.S. peace drive. Mitchell is personally acceptable and credible
to all sides; but if there was a signal that President Obama intends to sink
his teeth into the conflict and is immediately ready to knock heads together,
he'd have dispatched someone more resolute like Richard Holbrooke. It looks
more of a holding pattern."
Mitchell's early efforts concluded in 2001 when his commission report called
for a freeze of Israeli settlements and the withdrawal of the Israeli army
from West Bank towns if all Palestinian terror was to end. It had no immediate
effect on the then no-holds barred confrontation between the Palestinian Authority
under Yasser Arafat and the hard-line Israeli government under Ariel Sharon.
Settlements and Palestinian violence continued to grow. The Mitchell confidence-building
measures (CBM) got bogged down over which side would make "the first move."
But there was a covert impact. To stave off U.S. and international pressure,
two years later Sharon announced that he was opting for a unilateral Israeli
withdrawal soldiers and settlers from the entire Gaza Strip.
When Sharon disappeared from the political stage, and following the war against
Hezbollah in Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert failed to follow through on
a promised plan for a second unilateral disengagement this time in the
When, belatedly, the Bush administration realized it needed to re-engage in
an attempt to end the conflict, it committed to an all-embracing peace plan
for the "two-state solution." Kicking off late in 2007, the Annapolis
process devised a new approach: to circumvent the "who goes first"
obstacle and the gradual step-by-step approach, it offered collateral talks
towards a comprehensive peace. The innovation was to marry the interim issues
of violence and settlement freeze with the broad final status issues
future of settlements, borders, Jerusalem, and refugees.
But time ran out on Annapolis. Settlements grew. Public belief in the two-state
solution has seriously eroded on both sides. The Gaza war has reinforced the
mutual mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis. Over the past 15 months,
however, there have been changes in the West Bank under the stewardship of
another peace envoy, former British prime minister Tony Blair. He has been
busily spelling out Annapolis on the ground. "Getting the reality of the
Palestinian state in place before political negotiations is what is meaningful.
The state is not only about an agreement at the end of a peace process, but
about Palestinian capabilities in handling security and their economy,"
Blair has said.
The Palestinian economy in the West Bank has indeed gone through structural
reforms, and Palestinians forces (partially U.S.-trained) have kept violence
down to a minimum as they gradually reassume control of Palestinian towns.
It's no accident that during the Israeli military assault in Gaza, West Bank
solidarity protests were bottled up by President Abbas.
Blair was one of the main beneficiaries of Mitchell's 1998 Good Friday agreement
for Northern Ireland. Can Mitchell now benefit from Blair's 18-month building
If President Obama is intent on having the Mitchell mission get off on the
right foot, it will take more than just a readiness to tackle the missing ingredient
from the original Mitchell report a resolute check on Israeli settlement
building. That demand of Israel, say skeptics, needs to be integrated into
a broader Obama vision of how the conflict can be ended once and for all, and
what he intends for the future of the whole region. Otherwise, Mitchell will
indeed find himself again relegated to "a holding pattern" role.
(Inter Press Service)