Obama Names George Mitchell Top Middle East Envoy

Friday update follows below:

by James M. Wall

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  Or, if  you prefer, there is a God in Heaven who has finally figured enough is enough. You know the God I mean, the One who led President Barack Obama to choose George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy.

OK, if you don’t like this theology, or any theology, at least, accept Mitchell as a gift from Santa Claus one month late.

A former US Senator and skilled negotiator, Mitchell’s appointment as Obama’s Middle East envoy was announced Thursday afternoon when President Obama visited the State Department where he and Vice President Joe Biden welcomed Hillary Clinton to her new position as Secretary of State.

Many of the Zionist-leaning candidates for this top envoy position (led by Dennis Ross) from the Clinton and Bush eras, will most likely still end up working under Mitchell.  No problem there because the coaches, not the players, are supposed to call the plays in this game.

It will not be easy. The Obama-Mitchell duo must still deal with an American public that, in its media brain-washed stupor, accepted the canard that Israel killed 1400 Palestinians and destroyed 4000 homes in Gaza, to halt smuggling and rocket fire (neither of which were halted).

And then there is the Congress, our elected legislative leaders who embraced the attack on Gaza by an overwhelming vote with nary a word of concern over the human suffering and destruction in Gaza.

The 22 day invasion was planned well ahead of the inauguration of Barack Obama. It ended almost on the hour that the new president was sworn into office.

Israel’s leaders are themselves locked in a political campaign to choose a new Knesset and prime minister. Their pending February election no doubt led Israel’s leaders to gamble that they could “win” a war in Gaza before their Washington patron, George Bush, left office.

That gamble failed. Israel won nothing except a growing awareness in the world, and slowly also in the US, that Israel can be saved from itself not by its own leaders, but by an American president determined to bring a real peace to the region, not a “peace” designed to further Israel’s expansionist goals.

Mitchell is the first step. What do we know about Mitchell’s career in national politics?

Wikipedia gives Mitchell’s family history:

Mitchell’s father, George John Mitchell, was of Irish descent and was a janitor at Colby College and his mother, Mary Saad, was a textile worker who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon at the age of eighteen. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1954. In 1961, Mitchell received his law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.

After a career in law, Mitchell became a US senator from Maine when the incumbent,  Edmund Muskie resigned to become Secretary of State during Jimmy Carter’s final year in office.  Mitchell served in the Senate until 1995.

The Huffington Post:

Mitchell, credited with arranging a peace accord in Northern Ireland, played the special envoy role for former President Bill Clinton and has handled other delicate diplomatic assignments since leaving the Senate in 1995.

The White House has been preparing key constituencies for this announcement. The first published report about Mitchell, by someone outside the administration, appeared in the conservative Washington Times, which got its confirmation from a ” representative of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations”.

Which suggests that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had been on the phone, doing what he was instructed to do, prepare the way and make smooth the path.

Richard Silverstein, who writes Tikum Olan, a blog “dedicated to Israeli-Palestinian peace, world music, and US politics”, is must reading to discover what the liberal Jewish community is saying, or at least hearing, about Middle East peace. (He describes himself as a Jewish liberal, may his tribe increase.)

Silverstein is, to put it mildly, overjoyed by the Mitchell choice.  He tells us why in his current posting:

This is an appointment that neither Israel nor the Israel lobby will like because they will have little opportunity to “play” Mitchell or game the system as they often attempt to do.  With a weak president or secretary of state, it’s far easier for both to manipulate U.S. political reality in their favor with the help of groups like Aipac and others.

However, we now have a strong president with a clear mandate to effect change in both the domestic and foreign sphere.  Mitchell too is a heavyweight who cannot be “played” or spun.  He has had previous experience in this field as well having been appointed by Bill Clinton to study the issues and provide advice on how to resolve them.

Opposition was immediate. James Besser wrote in the New York Jewish Week:

The expected appointment of a special envoy to breathe new life into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could split the pro-Israel center while pleasing the Jewish left and outraging the right. The schism could be particularly deep if, as was widely reported this week, President Barack Obama appoints former Sen. George Mitchell to the job.

Some Jewish leaders say the very qualities that may appeal to the Obama administration — Mitchell’s reputation as an honest broker — could spark unhappiness, if not outright opposition, from some pro-Israel groups.

“Sen. Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been ‘even handed’ — it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support.”

There are citizens of Israel who will greet the Mitchell news with a huge sigh of relief.  Citizens like Ha’aretz columnist Aklva Eldar:

Israelis were the only people in the world who hoped the Republican candidate would win. The new president can thus permit himself to reexamine the “special relationship” with Israel, especially with regard to its shared values with the United States and its contribution to American interests.

We should also expect a sigh of relief from Israeli novelist David Grossman who wrote about the Gaza invasion in Ha’aretz,

We must speak, because what has happened in the Gaza Strip over the last few weeks sets up a mirror in which we in Israel see the reflection of our own face – a face that, if we were looking in from the outside or saw it on another people – would leave us aghast.

We would see that our victory is not a genuine victory, and that the war in Gaza has not healed the spot that so badly needs a cure, but only further exposed the tragic and never-ending mistakes we have made in navigating our way.

Palestinian journalist Rami Khoury should be encouraged as well. He wrote  recently in the Beruit Daily Star:

On no other foreign policy issue does Congress collectively stick its head in its back pocket, turn off its power of independent judgment, and disregard the impact of its decisions on how the US is perceived around the world.

On no other issue does Congress vote according to the interests of a foreign country, rather than according to the US national interest. This kind of blind, wholehearted plunge into a maelstrom of pro-Israeli fanaticism and zealotry reflects precisely how strong the pro-Israeli lobby is in the United States, and how weak are the voices of reason, balance and justice as drivers of American foreign policy.

Of course, a successful George Mitchell scenario depends on Barack Obama carrying forward a vision for justice and peace (in that order) for both Palestinians and Israelis. Can either side be trusted?  History tells us there are dangers down this path of trust.

Israel began work on its Dimona nuclear weapons complex in 1960, using heavy water it had obtained from the British in 1956. You heard that right.  Work on the “secret” Dimona plant was begun that long ago, with promises from David Ben Gurion that it was for peaceful use only.

In his book, A World of Trouble, Patrick Tyler recalls that the “first CIA ‘special’ national intelligence estimate on Dimona arrived on President Eisenhower’s desk in early December, 1960, just after John Kennedy defeated Vice President Richard Nixon in the presidential election.”

Could Israel be trusted to develop a nuclear capability for peaceful purposes only?

The journalist Arthur Krock asked John McCone, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, whether the discovery of Israel’s secret nuclear program offered “a very perfect opportunity” for Israel “to agree to be the model for an inspection system whereby the benevolence of intent could be proved, not only to us but to the world.”

McCone agreed that it could.  But it was not to be.

That was 49 years ago, nearly half a century. The Dimona project remains officially “secret” to this day, a public deceit maintained in Israel, with support in the US from a compliant Congress and media.

Today Dimona is the heart of Israel’s nuclear arms industry. Here is a report from the BBC from August, 2005:

The BBC’s Newsnight program, broadcast late Wednesday, said government papers held at the National Archive show Britain shipped 20 tons of heavy water to Israel in 1959. The program said the water was vital for the production of plutonium at Israel’s secret Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev desert.

Newsnight said British officials did not impose any conditions on the sale, such as stipulating the heavy water could be used only for peaceful purposes. The BBC report said the United States had refused to supply heavy water to Israel without such safeguards.

Robert McNamara, who became President Kennedy’s defense secretary in 1961, told the BBC that Britain didn’t inform the Americans it had sold heavy water to Israel. (page 63)

This is what Barack Obama faces: A world in which allies sell lethal material to other allies while, maybe, keeping the US out of the loop.

Will President Obama and George Mitchell break that mold and make justice, not profit and power, the goal?  As Ronald Reagan liked to say, quoting from one of his movies, “Gee coach, I’d sure like to try.”

“Try” is all that we now have left to ask of President Obama. And our trust is all we have to give him, now that we have given him the keys to the future. The Mitchell appointment is a good first step. Now we wait, and if we are so inclined, pray to a divine power of our choice.

First Update: Friday morning

Helena Cobban’s blog, Just World News, has the full text of President Obama’s statement on the Mitchell appointment, delivered at the State Department.  Cobban is a veteran Christian Science Monitor journalist with a strong background of reporting on the Middle East.

London Times OnLine is moderate in its praise of the Mitchell appointment. OnLine references Mitchell’s experience in Ireland as valuable background, but warns against assuming too much from the historic parallel.

Robert Fisk, of the London Independent found very little encouragement for the Arab world in Obama’s inaugural address. His analysis is a stern reminder that the task ahead for President Obama will not be easy.  His column was written before Obama made the Mitchell appointment.

Fisk, who writes from Beruit, is a highly respected foreign with years of experience covering the Middle East.  He offers a sobering reminder that years of neglect leave their toll on a people living under military occupation. A sample:

. . . Did Obama’s young speech-writer not realise that talking about black rights – why a black man’s father might not have been served in a restaurant 60 years ago – would concentrate Arab minds on the fate of a people who gained the vote only three years ago but were then punished because they voted for the wrong people?

It wasn’t a question of the elephant in the china shop. It was the sheer amount of corpses heaped up on the floor of the china shop. . . .

Juan Cole looked for small signs of hope for the Palestinians in the Mitchell announcement. He concluded his Friday blog posting with these words from President Obama:

. . . As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime” and with the international community and the Palestinian Authority participating.’

Cole writes that these words from Obama were:

. . . worth the price of admission. Considering the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians, caring at least a little about them as human beings. It is not enough by any means, but at least it is pointing in the right direction.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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4 Responses to Obama Names George Mitchell Top Middle East Envoy

  1. Pauline Coffman says:

    Thank you, Jim. Good to get these perspectives outlined. Keep hope alive!

  2. Rolf Cannistraro says:

    This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last week.

  3. stan squires says:

    I am from vancouver,canada and i wanted to say that there are still many problems in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday agreement.So i am not hopeful aboutGeorge Mitchell getting a peace agreement in the middle east.
    There are still british troops in northern ireland and the orange order still marches through catholic areas.Northern Ireland is still not united with the republic of Ireland.
    If the peace agreement in the middle east is going to be like the irish peace agreement it will be no good.For one thing the two state solution is not going to work.There needs to be a secular gov. in Israel and the palestinian people and the israeli people treated the same.The wall got to come down and the right of return of all palestinian refugees guarenteed.That is the only way there will be peace between the palestinian people and the israeli gov.

  4. Bonnie Jones Shinneman says:

    Thank you, Jim. I agree with you on all points. I appreciate so much your clarity of writing and your wealth of knowledge which you willingly share with the rest of us. I am grateful to you.

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