WASHINGTON (AFP) – The choice of former US senator George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East shows that President Barack Obama is serious about changing the direction of US policy in the Middle East, experts say.
Several names were floated over the past weeks as possible special envoys to the region, including those of Dennis Ross, former president Bill Clinton’s envoy to the region, and former US ambassador to Cairo Daniel Kurtzer.
The choice of Mitchell “indicates to me that Obama did get the message that both of those names … were received with dismay in the Arab Middle East,” said Marina Ottaway, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Obama “has already taken a very significant position by putting Mitchell in that position” instead of Ross or Kurtzer, Ottaway said.
This even though “there was clearly a lot of lobbying going on” from the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington to appoint either of them, she said.
The son of an Irish father and a Lebanese mother, Mitchell, 75, negotiated the 1998 Good Friday agreement that helped bring peace to Northern Ireland.
He already has experience in the Middle East: in 2000 he led an international fact-finding mission seeking ways to end the violence between Palestinians and Israelis. The results, which appear in the 2001 Mitchell Commission Report, call for a freeze of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory and the withdrawal of the Israeli army from West Bank towns.
“I don’t think Mitchell is going to be an extremist in any way,” Ottaway said, “but it is quite clear that the Israelis themselves don’t expect him to give them the kind of free ride that the Bush administration has given them.”
Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor who is co-author of a 2006 book on the power of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, emphasized Mitchell’s impartiality.
“Our long-standing policy of one-sided support hasn’t been working out so well for the United States, or for Israel,” Walt wrote in the Foreign Policy journal website blog. “I think Obama may get this.”
“We welcome this appointment,” chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Qorei told AFP in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “He’s someone with experience of the Israel-Palestinian question and the settlement of political conflicts.”
Qorei described the 2001 Mitchell Report as “objective.”
Israel welcomed not only Mitchell but also Obama’s move to “engage actively” in peace negotiations, foreign ministry spokesman Ygal Palmor said.
He recalled “the good working relationship” the Jewish state had enjoyed with Mitchell in 2001 and said he was convinced it would continue.
With the move Obama makes a clear break with the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who refused to be directly involved in Israeli-Palestinian talks, insisting on the “bilateral” aspect of the negotiations.
“It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” Obama said Thursday.
“We are delighted” with Mitchell’s choice, a high-ranking diplomat from an Arab nation told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.