Little hope from new US mediation

CAIRO (IPS) - Egyptians seem at best only cautiously optimistic over the appointment of Senator George Mitchell as United States envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell is mandated chiefly with settling the Arab-Israeli dispute.

“Mitchell’s prospects for achieving an acceptable settlement are grim,” Ahmed Thabet, political science professor at Cairo University told IPS. “The previous US administration created several facts on the ground which will be very difficult to undo.”

The new US administration of President Barack Obama announced Mitchell’s appointment late January as Washington’s special envoy to the Middle East. A former senate majority leader, Mitchell replaces Dennis Ross.

“What I told [Mitchell] is to start by listening,” Obama said in an interview with Arabic language satellite news channel Al-Arabiya shortly after the appointment. “Because all too often, the US starts by dictating … and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved.”

Mitchell is credited with resolving the longstanding Northern Ireland conflict in the late 1990s, but also boasts considerable experience in Middle East peacemaking.

In 2000, Mitchell headed a fact-finding mission ostensibly aimed at eliminating obstacles to a just resolution of the perennial Israel-Palestine dispute. In a report issued the following year, he called for a halt to illegal settlement building on occupied Arab land by Israel, and the removal of Israeli checkpoints from the West Bank.

The “Mitchell Recommendations” were never implemented, but they earned him a reputation for relative even-handedness.

Immediately after his appointment, Mitchell set out on a week-long tour of the region. He visited Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority — all of them key US allies in the region. Notably, he avoided longstanding US adversaries Syria and the Gaza-based Palestinian resistance faction Hamas.

After eight years of the George W. Bush administration — widely seen in the Arab world as having been particularly bellicose — Mitchell’s appointment was warmly received in most official Arab quarters.

“Obama’s choice was a good one. Mitchell is a politician of wide horizons and highly experienced in conflict resolution,” Arab League chief Amr Moussa was quoted as saying in independent daily Al-Sharouk on 7 February. “He might just play the role of honest broker.”

Emad Gad, senior analyst at the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, shared Moussa’s optimism.

“Obama seems sincere about resolving the Middle East dispute, and so he appointed an envoy with a lot of experience and patience in negotiations,” Gad told IPS. “Based on his work in Ireland, Mitchell appears to have the ability to convince hostile antagonists to arrive at mutually acceptable compromises.”

According to Gad, Obama’s choice of the Lebanese-US diplomat will also serve to offset the impression that US envoys to the region must, as a rule, be zealous supporters of Israel.

“Almost all of Washington’s previous envoys to the Middle East have been Jewish Americans with blatant Zionist leanings,” Gad said. “From an Arab perspective, therefore, Obama’s choice of Mitchell comes as a breath of fresh air.”

Nevertheless, Gad conceded that Mitchell’s overriding task — resolving the issue of Palestine — will be “extremely difficult” in the current circumstances, which include both serious inter-Palestinian rifts and recent electoral victories by extremist political parties in Israel. “If Israel and the Palestinian factions don’t want a resolution, Mitchell will not be able to force one on them,” he said.

Thabet, meanwhile, is considerably less optimistic about Washington’s ability — or even a sincere desire — to provide a fair solution to the conflict, regardless of its choice of envoy.

“From the outset, any US regional envoy is beholden to the fact that the Zionist lobby has convinced the US public that Israel is a national priority and that it represents an essential component of US national security,” said Thabet. “Under these circumstances, how can Mitchell be an impartial mediator?”

Thabet also pointed to a number of “facts on the ground” created by the outgoing Bush administration, which, he said, will strongly militate against Mitchell’s prospects for success. These include a 2004 “security pledge” given by Bush to then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon — which effectively neutralized key Palestinian demands — and a recent US-Israel security agreement ostensibly aimed at fighting arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip.

“With these pre-existing constraints, Mitchell has been left with no real options by which to reach a fair settlement,” said Thabet.

Although many analysts point to the 2001 Mitchell Recommendations as proof of the new envoy’s neutrality, Thabet challenges this assumption. “The recommendations did support a handful of modest Palestinian demands, but they could hardly be described as ‘neutral,’” he said.

“Despite enormous popularity and Arab support, [former US President Bill] Clinton was unable to force even minor concessions from Israel in the 2000 Camp David II negotiations,” he added. “So how can Obama, who will be tied up with the unfolding financial crisis, or his envoy for that matter, be expected to do any better?”

Nor does Thabet believe Mitchell’s Arab ancestry will make much difference. “His Lebanese roots won’t matter at all,” he said. “The explosive situation in the Middle East depends on the regional balance of power — not on one man’s personal attributes.”

At the conclusion of Mitchell’s recent tour of the region, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the trip as the first of “what will be an ongoing high level of engagement.” Mitchell is expected to return to the region later this month for a round of follow-up meetings.

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