When Obama blinked first, Mitchell’s mission was doomed
May 16th, 2011
09:45 AM ET

When Obama blinked first, Mitchell’s mission was doomed

Editor's NoteDaoud Kuttab a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He is also the founder of AmmanNet, the Arab world's first internet radio station.

By Daoud Kuttab – Special to CNN

The appointment of George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace for the newly-sworn-in U.S. president was a source of much hope in the Middle East. Senior U.S. officials toured the region soon thereafter to make sure people understood the importance of the appointment and its timing.

Mitchell took the appointment seriously and did what no other envoy before him had done. He created a team of supporters and opened an office in the U.S. Mission in Jerusalem in order to make sure that neither side made claims in closed rooms that were not enacted on the ground.

As an envoy, Mitchell was aware of the difficulty of the mission and the failures of so many other envoys before him. However, he did have faith in the fairness and determination of his boss, the newly elected President Barack Obama.

It now seems that his faith was misplaced.

While it is not clear what exactly lies behind Mitchell’s resignation, it likely had to do with policy disagreements. The 77-year-old Mitchell says that when he accepted the job, he had promised to stay on for two years and that he has stayed longer than that. But for the past six months it has been clear in the region that Mitchell practically made the decision to quit the job once it was clear that his advice was no longer being heeded in the White House.

Mitchell’s advice appears to have been rejected twice and both times the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank seemed to have caused the break in trust between Mitchell and the White House.

The problem began in the summer of 2009 with the first snag in talks. Palestinians had carried out their side of the road map and had vastly improved security. Even Israeli army officials admitted it.

Next it was the turn of the Israelis to suspend settlement activities. The U.S.-Israeli tensions grew in the lead up to a summit meeting. When President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met, the American president seemed to have blinked first. Instead of insisting on a settlement freeze he called for a settlement ‘reduction.’

Obama’s surrender happened shortly after the reappointment of pro-Israeli-envoy Dennis Ross as a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton.

The Israelis did ‘reduce’ settlement activities for ten months. But differences over this self-imposed ‘moratorium’ - which excluded Jerusalem as well as existing building plans - delayed direct talks.

Mitchell tried to salvage the situation by getting the Israelis to agree on the western borders of the future Palestinian state - but to no avail. All attempts to get the Israelis to extend the moratorium for as little as three months failed.

The U.S. insisted on a moratorium - and even tried to bribe the Israelis with three billion dollars worth of fighter jets - but Netanyahu, who had forced Obama to blink first, simply said no.

Palestinians eyeing statehood by the fall of 2011 naturally refused to give in on the settlement issue. If America couldn’t get the Israelis to stop building the settlements in Palestinian areas, it became clear that the Mitchell process was doomed.

Israelis and Palestinians are not equal partners. The lack of symmetry between them can't be rectified so long as the Israeli army rules over Palestinians and denies them freedom.

Neither George Mitchell, nor Dennis Ross, nor any peace envoy, can bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians without Washington's strong role in rectifying this imbalance.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Daoud Kuttab.

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Justin

    Did Obama really "blink first" or was there ambivalence towards the idea that leopards do not change their spots? Hamas is STILL only "considering" recognizing Israel as a state and denouncing violence. So, why must the Israelis' government and companies halt development, halt their country's great progress, in the light of "some progress" by a broken Palestinian government? Israel slowed their development and Arabs (in general) hail that as a defeat and start licking their chops. This is the problem. All Arab countries must recognize Israel and denounce violence before there can be any direct negotiations that the past has shown to be futile in the peace process without these factors.

    May 16, 2011 at 10:24 am | Reply
  2. james2

    I think Mitchell faced the same problem that Assistant Secretary PJ Crowley did when he resigned, namely the Washington bureaucracy and business as usual. The US provides billions of dollars in aid to the Israeli government, a lot like the Pakistanis, and not once thought of being tough on its ally by using that aid as leverage. The proof of the asymmetry between the Palestinians and Israelis regarding the peace process lies in the Palestinian Papers. Even in the Security Council Resolution the Palestinians offered major, some would might even say overindulgent, concessions just to stop the settlements. Mahmoud Abbas could not possibly offer anything else without selling out to his own people. No, this is clearly a case of classic "No Drama Obama" who wants to please the Washington establishment (on both sides of the aisle) and pro-Israeli campaign donors. Could any of us imagine just how humiliating it must be for Abbas to be told to wait patiently like a schoolchild until after the 2012 elections before the US enters the negotiations again?

    May 16, 2011 at 10:32 am | Reply
  3. Mark L.

    The only hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Islamofascist terrorists is when Israel decides to go in, reoccupy both the Gaza Strip and West Bank and send the both the FATAH and HAMAS TERRORISTS packing. Isn't it quite apparent the Palestinian Terrorists DO NOT WANT PEACE?? If they do not wish to live in peace with Israel, let them go to Iran and live with Mahmoud "Adolf Hitler, Jr." Ahmadinejad !!

    May 16, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Reply
    • noslack2327

      Israel lost the moral high ground at Deir Yassin, in the refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila and in Jenin. The Israelis fired on the USS Liberty, killing and wounding our sailors in international waters. With respect to Palestinian terrorism – What about Irgun, the Stern Gang and Haganah? They were terrorists – no not "freedom fighters." Israel has an army, a navy, an air force and nuclear weapons. The Palestinians have none of those forces, do they? We should cease all aid to Israel, especially military aid.

      May 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Reply
      • dutenp

        so if Israel `lost high moral' ground, someone should have gained it instead. Are you saying that so-called palestinians took their place on that illusive `high ground' ? Indeed with Itamar massacre, killings immediately following the resumption of talks last September, attempts to breach the boarders last week and so on so forth, crowned with reconciliation of fatah and hamas they " .had carried out their side of the road map". Way to go, some side they carried out. They don't want peace, they don't even want a country of their own (offered them on several occasions, since 1948, including) - all they need is no jews in sight. Very promising premise.

        May 17, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    If I had Aladdin's wonderful lamp, I would perform magic and bring an identical piece of Palestine into existence, so that either the Israelis or the Palestinians could have this new piece of land all for themselves.

    May 16, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  5. U Shr

    yes, indeed, an opportunity lost. Another opportunity is presenting itself this week, but again the 2012 re-electioneers in this White House too full of naysayers and lead from behinders seem to preclude bold and positive action .... or a speech or two with a new vigor and a vision for the mid-east

    May 16, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Reply
  6. Julian

    The US is clearly the obstacle to piece. When all in countries in the world vote for particular resolutions that may apportion some blame or requirement on Israel, the US as a solitary blockage votes against them. When there is one apportioning blame or placing a requirement on the Palestinians the US are co-sponsors. To the world outside the US, this is painfully obvious.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:57 am | Reply
  7. noslack2327

    Our elected officials place their reelection interests and the Pro-Israeli lobby money, which they deem necessary for campaigns, a greater priority than the U. S. people's foreign policy concerns. As long as the Israelis recognize that they will be intransigent. Shame on our federally elected officials, Secretary of State Clinton and the Obama Administration. It is shameful that the United States if NOT an honest broker in the Middle East – and it PERILOUS to the American people. Our alliance with Israel (How are the Israelis an ally?) is a liability.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  8. Yesh Prabhu

    I agree with you. There is no doubt that Obama blinked first. Now he has decided to speak at the AIPAC summit next week to praise and flatter the big donors who are expected to attend in droves and pack the summit. He needs their money to fatten his re-election fund, and so he will say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done. Rest assured that he will repeat his and Joe Biden’s famous mantra: "Our bond with Israel is unbreakable, and our support of Israel is unshakable." He will also assure the supporters of Israel that the 3.2 billion dollars US sends to Israel each year will continue to flow; after all, Israel needs the funds to continue to expand and proliferate the settlements on Palestinian ancestral lands.
    Yesh Prabhu, Bushkill, Pennsylvania

    May 17, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Reply

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