Mideast envoy resigns as US refocuses on region

May 14, 2011 - 3:13 AM
Mitchell

FILE - In this Sept. 2, 2010 file photo, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell briefs reporters the State Department in Washington. AP sources say that Mitchell plans to resign. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is losing his special envoy to the Mideast just as the administration is showing a renewed focus on the long-troubled region.

George Mitchell, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland, announced Friday he is stepping down after fruitless attempts at rekindling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Obama, accepting the resignation, called Mitchell "a tireless advocate for peace."

Mitchell's departure comes as Obama prepares for a flurry of activity on the Middle East, which has seen popular uprisings sprout in several countries but little movement in the effort to find a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. That peace process has been moribund since last fall and further complicated by an agreement between Palestinian factions to share power.

Obama plans to deliver a speech next Thursday at the State Department about his administration's views on developments in the region. The next day — Mitchell's last on the job — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit Washington.

Obama also will play host to Jordan's King Abdullah II on Tuesday. And the White House was looking to schedule a speech by Obama to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the country's largest pro-Israel lobby, before he leaves for Europe May 22, officials said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration remains focused on reviving Middle East peace negotiations.

"The president's commitment remains as firm as it was when he took office," Carney said. "This is a hard issue, an extraordinarily hard issue."

David Hale, Mitchell's deputy, will serve as acting envoy, Obama said in a statement.

Mitchell wrote a two-paragraph letter to Obama saying he took the diplomatic job intending to only serve two years.

"I strongly support your vision of comprehensive peace in the Middle East and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your administration," Mitchell wrote.

On his second full day in office in January 2009, Obama appointed Mitchell to the special envoy's post. The former Democratic senator from Maine, who rose to majority leader, had established his credentials as an international mediator by helping broker peace in Northern Ireland.

Since his appointment, Mitchell, 77, has shuttled among the Israelis, Palestinians and friendly Arab states in a bid to restart long-stalled talks that would create an independent Palestinian state. But in recent months, particularly after the upheaval in Arab countries that ousted longtime U.S. ally and key peace partner Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt, his activity had slowed markedly.

Mitchell never established a firm presence, preferring to jet in for short visits lasting several days or even several hours. More critically, Mitchell never established a rapport with either side.

With Israelis suspicious of Obama even before he assumed office, Mitchell further unnerved them by taking a tough line against West Bank settlements, saying that any construction was unacceptable. The Palestinians, initially encouraged, became disillusioned when the U.S. was unable to persuade Israel to freeze settlement construction.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mitchell's task held greater hope at the time of his appointment.

"But the way the politics worked out, you have an Israeli government that is very skeptical about the ability of negotiating with the Palestinian Authority," Alterman said. "And you have a Palestinian Authority where the internal politics are increasingly fraught.

"So it's hard to find a political consensus either among the Israelis or the Palestinians to move forward on the kinds of negotiations that George Mitchell was appointed to facilitate."

Mitchell believed his patience would serve him well in the Arab-Israeli conflict and its constant forward and backward steps.

Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Mitchell's departure could signal a different approach by the Obama administration.

"His methods just didn't work here," Alpher said. "The Northern Ireland method of listen, listen and listen doesn't work here."

Nabil Shaath, a leading Palestinian negotiator, suggested the resignation was not so much a blow to the peace effort as a reflection of its failure — and that should conditions change, the identity of the mediator was not key.

"Mitchell hadn't received enough support from the U.S. administration to make a breakthrough in the peace process. He is a positive man, he is a great man and he is my friend," Shaath said. "But Mitchell can be replaced when the U.S. administration is ready. There is no possibility for a mediator to work without the needed support and pressure from the administration on Israel."

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Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Erica Werner in Washington, Dan Perry and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.