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 West Bank.
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 of Palestine?
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.