On December 18, 2008, Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies welcomed an honored American guest who participated in the 2nd Annual International Conference: Security Challenges of the 21st Century.
Former US Senator George Mitchell presented, “The American Perspective.” Note the definite article — Mitchell was not simply presenting an American perspective. Indeed, Haaretz reported yesterday that the institute’s director, Oded Eran, “found out on the eve of the conference that Mitchell had been chosen as the next Mideast envoy, though the envoy-designate did not discuss his new position.”
Did Mitchell’s anticipated imminent return to the region as President Obama’s Middle East envoy provide an added incentive for Israel to launch its assault of Gaza? After January 20 the strain on US-Israeli relations would have been severe.
But what could be so threatening about such a renowned American elder statesman? How could someone with Mitchell’s track record — a pivotal role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland — not provide an invaluable contribution to a moribund peace process?
Among Israel’s leaders and some of its most influential supporters it is Mitchell’s virtues that present the most ominous threat.
In The Jerusalem Post, under the headline, “Mitchell: Every conflict can be solved,” Herb Keinon candidly exposes Israel’s fear of an honest broker. Citing the findings of Mitchell’s 2001 report on the causes of the Second Intifada, Keinon writes:
- The Mitchell Report called for an immediate cessation of violence and a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian Authority security cooperation, and a series of “confidence-building measures” to follow the cease-fire. The two key measures were that the PA had to “make clear through concrete action to Palestinians and Israelis alike that terrorism is reprehensible and unacceptable and that the PA will make a 100-percent effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators”; and that Israel had to “freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.”
- One government official said Mitchell’s position on zero settlement construction, together with new National Security Adviser James Jones’s previous articulation of frustration at Israel’s inability to dismantle outposts, would likely put Israel and the new administration on a collision course.
- The official said that while Mitchell had been considered “a friend of Israel” when he was Senate majority leader from 1989-1995, his tenure as head of the Mitchell Committee left some in Jerusalem with the feeling that he was trying to be “too balanced.”
- The official said the apparent selection of Mitchell as special envoy, over more high-profile Jewish Middle East experts surrounding Obama – such as Dennis Ross, Daniel Kurtzer, Martin Indyk and Richard Holbrooke – might indicate that for the sake of balance, Obama did not want a Jew in that position.
Echoing the same fear that Mitchell’s appointment puts Israel at risk because he will be “too” fair, one of Israel’s most prominent American defenders was equally frank in revealing his doubts:
- “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.
- “So I’m concerned,” Foxman continued. “I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East.”
In as much as George Mitchell provokes fear among Israelis, he also crystallizes what should now be under debate.
The peace process has become a facade. Behind this facade, inside Israel, there has arisen a hardening conviction that peace is not possible. Mitchell poses a direct challenge to that conviction because he comes in with the opposite view:
- …from my experience in Northern Ireland I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created and conducted by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. I saw it happen in Northern Ireland although admittedly it took a very long time. I believe deeply that with committed, persevering and active diplomacy it can happen in the Middle East.
The real question that confronts Israel is not, what can advance the peace process? The question is much starker: does Israel still believe in the possibility of peace or has it become resigned to existing in a perpetual state of war?
Yet to pose this question is to expose the fragility of the security bubble inside which Israel currently chooses to reside. For as much as Israel likes to assume the posture of an indomitable military power, the simple truth is that Israel’s military might is utterly dependent on America’s patronage — hence the threat posed by America as honest broker, as opposed to loyal defender. As honest broker, America cannot perpetually provide Israel with the option of choosing war instead of peace.