This week George Mitchell resigned as Obama's special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell was appointed the second day President Obama was in office, January 22, 2009, and was portrayed as the "messiah of negotiations."
Mitchell has been credited for leading the diplomatic force that produced a peace agreement resolving the crisis in Northern Ireland, and he tried to apply the lessons he learned from that conflict to the Israeli-Palestinian one. As Mitchell recalls, "I had 700 days of 'no' in Northern Ireland, and one 'yes,'" and then continued to say that "you have to be willing to go back, prodding, cajoling, listening .... You have to make clear you respect the people involved, and whatever the circumstance involved, to allow the parties to express their views."
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was successful in transferring the political process from violence to a non-violent, legal framework based on elaborate power-sharing measures between the Protestant minority and Catholic majority in Northern Ireland. Yet, the Mitchell Report, which attempted to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a similar approach to The Good Friday Agreement, failed to stem the continuing violence, and therefore failed.
George Mitchell adopted The Good Friday Agreement as the model for achieving a plausible peace in the Middle East. On the surface, this seems reasonable, as both conflicts share a religious basis; but a key difference is that, in Ireland, the land question is secondary. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is not theological but cultural and historical, as well as related directly to economic and social power.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem symbolizes the capital for both Israelis and Palestinians. The religious and cultural passions Jerusalem embodies constitute an as yet insurmountable obstacle to peace. Something we witnessed in Arafat's bold faced lie to then-President Clinton when he denied the existence of any Jewish Temple in Jerusalem; this "fact" is still pervasive amongst Palestinian officials.
The Jerusalem question
Mitchell symbolized the Obama Administration's determination to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict against all odds. The tenacity he used in Northern Ireland proved futile in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Apparently, Mitchell was inept in his attempt to convince the White House that Obama's speech next week must include a detailed plan for peace in the Middle East.
Even Obama understands that the timing is bad for announcing such plan when there is hardly a peace process in place. Furthermore, Obama would be seen as weak on the heels of the Palestinian threat of a unilateral declaration of statehood and the fake Fatah- Hamas marriage. As such, Obama will be joining Netanyahu in next week's AIPAC policy conference - the largest gathering of the pro-Israeli community in North America to reaffirm the bond between the US and Israel.
If anything, the latest "Arab Spring" has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the core of the problems in the Middle East does not reside within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More specifically, it is not about settlements or Jerusalem. However, Mitchell's naïveté was too entrenched in his success of Northern Ireland, which prevented him from seeing the limitations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Again, this is the reason why he kept advocating for 100% construction freeze in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank as a prerequisite for peace talks. Such freeze is impossible for any Israeli government and had never previously been viewed by Palestinian leaders as a prerequisite. Abbas himself acknowledged it in a recent interview, where he slammed President Obama for pushing him to follow this course and now makes him look foolish.
While the Irish certainly have an identity connection to the land, it is not talismanic. The Irish people do not see Dublin as a divinely chosen conduit to God. Jerusalem, however, is the single most important place for all Jews, and, though unnamed in the Koran, has become the third most holy place for Muslims. Understanding the Jewish and Irish perceptions of their own ethnicities is critical to understanding the outcomes in these two arenas: Ethnic perceptions allowed success in Northern Ireland and virtually ensured failure in the Middle East.
Finally, while the Irish quest for peace led to significant economic reform, a Palestinian State in the current environment clearly would translate into another failed Arab State. The focus should be on curbing the Islamists and finding a way to incorporate religion with democracy, yet none of this is taking place in Palestinian society today. In fact, the opposite is true: Hamas and its Islamists cronies are on the rise.
Unfortunately, Mitchell failed to grasp these basic tenants of Israeli-Palestinian relations and this continuously influenced his advice to the White House.