US special envoy from 2009 combines resolve to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, with realistic take on likelihood of deal
The appointment of George Mitchell (right) as US special envoy to the Middle East was seen as strong evidence of Barack Obama’s (left) commitment to getting the negotiations moving. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
George Mitchell came to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with previous experience of the Middle East, as well as his much-praised success in brokering the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.
His appointment by Barack Obama in January 2009 was seen as powerful evidence of the president’s commitment to getting talks moving. Mitchell insisted from the start he was interested in “results, not process”, but quickly found that the parties needed constant reassurance.
“I understand the frustration and the burden of history,” he told Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in 2009, “but please don’t let this opportunity slip by.”
Shuttling across the region to Syria, Jordan, the Gulf and Egypt, the 76-year-old former Democratic senator combined resolve to bring the sides together with hard-headed realism about how difficult it would be to get them to agree a deal. “I know something about negotiations,” he said. “When you say: ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’, these are not empty words.”
The leaked documents show that Mitchell, courteous and adept at sidestepping provocation, used advice to mask his irritation. “You have to deal with the world as it is, not as you would like it,” he urged when Palestinian officials insisted they would not negotiate without an Israeli settlement freeze that included East Jerusalem. There was no way to persuade Binyamin Netanyahu to freeze those settlements, Mitchell admitted, “even if we engage with the Israelis til doomsday”. He chided the Palestinians for misreading the political map in Israel.
Flattered by Erekat – who had taken the trouble of reading Mitchell’s book on Northern Ireland – the US envoy slightly misquoted Winston Churchill’s remark about Clement Attlee and applied it to himself: “A humble man, with much to be humble about”.
Mitchell scores high marks for empathy: “I can’t put myself in your shoes entirely, but as someone who served a long time in public office I can understand,” he told Erekat. But he failed to translate his strongest message into a diplomatic success. “For 60 years, the choices open to the Palestinian people have become less and less attractive,” he said. “The circumstance under which they live, worse and worse. There is not a shred of evidence that delay is going to provide better choices or improve daily life – and this is true with or without Barack Obama. But with Obama, it is absolutely clear that this is the last time. And believe me it is the best time.”
• This article was amended on 26 January 2011. The original referred to George Mitchell brokering the 1999 Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. This has been corrected.